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Robert Frost

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Robert Bringhurst has issued the latest edition of what Hermann Zapf called the “Typographer’s Bible”. The news will surely be welcomed by his ardent followers, but does the book speak to a modern congregation?

In 1992, when the first edition of The Elements of Typographic Style was published, Bringhurst was already an accomplished poet and translator of poetry — most notably Haida poetry, but also Navajo, Greek, and Arabic — into English. He was also a self-trained and accomplished book designer, and Elements was his attempt to catalogue and summarize the best practices of book typography and design, loosely according to the model provided by the book’s namesake, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White.

The book was a huge success. Four subsequent editions were published, labeled (somewhat incongruously, given Bringhurst’s approach to typography) versions 2.0, 3.0, 3.1, and 3.2. Now, on the book’s twentieth anniversary and eight years after the last release, a version 4.0 has appeared.

It’s hard to overstate the reputation Bringhurst and his book have gained in the typographic community. It didn’t hurt that Zapf blurbed the book’s first edition by calling for the book to become the “Typographer’s Bible”. More recently, Hoefler & Frere-Jones have called Elements “the finest book ever written about typography”. It appears on countless syllabi and reading lists, and is one of the “triumvirate” of type books still recommended to beginning typographers and designers, along with Alexander Lawson’s Anatomy of a Typeface (1990) and Walter Tracy’s Letters of Credit (1986).

What accounts for the lasting influence and popularity of Bringhurst’s book? Besides the handsomeness of the book itself — Bringhurst continues to enjoy the support of his publisher, Hartley & Marks, with his standards of book design and production — there are three reasons: the range and depth of his treatment, the quality of his writing, and the confidence and generosity of his tone.

Bringhurst’s scope is wide: the fundamentals and finer points of macro- and micro typography, type anatomy and classification; choosing typefaces and page formats; the use of diacritics and other analphabetic symbols (no doubt his experience as a translator of languages that rely on extensive diacritical support in the Latin alphabet has sensitized him to these matters); annotated lists of designers and foundries; glossaries of glyphs and terminology; and more. Besides distilling centuries of typographic expertise, his treatment of it is remarkably thorough: he doesn’t pretend that his book is an exhaustive account of typography, but his care and attention to detail is obvious (in places even overwhelming). And all of it is supported by well-made illustrations and diagrams. It would be hard to find another writer in English who commands as much knowledge about the use of writing and print to capture language as Bringhurst does, and that he can condense it into 398 pages (in this edition) that many people will read (once more) from half-title to colophon is impressive.

The quality of Bringhurst’s writing allows him to pull this off. Knowledge, experience, judgment, and enthusiasm are not always accompanied by writing skill, and like many academic and quasi-academic fields, typography is not flush with talented prose stylists. But the fact that Bringhurst came to book design and typography from poetry is evident on every page. He is a gifted author used to making every word tell, and his prose is (to borrow Robin Kinross’s description from Modern Typography) “serene and incantatory”. He finds words that capture — more completely than practically any of us can muster — why typography matters. This is most simply and succinctly evident in “first principles”: “Typography exists to honor content.”

Finally, Bringhurst’s writing is a perfect match for his tone. The Elements of Style is actually a poor model for advice and guidance of any sort: Strunk takes an important insight (that writing should be as considered and economical as possible and appropriate) and worries it into dozens of ponderous, crabby, and often questionable commandments. Fortunately the similarities between that book and Bringhurst’s end with the title and the numbered divisions. Even at his most direct, and despite the fact that the book does have the feel and structure of holy writ in places, Bringhurst’s tone is moderate and reflective. His confidence never drifts into arrogance, and his traditionalist roots don’t prevent him from acknowledging that contemporary themes, subjects, and standards call for contemporary type treatments and approaches. Conservative, yes, but conservative in the style of Edmund Burke: you change what you must to preserve what you can.

None of this will be news to most readers here. But all this being said, is the arrival of a fourth edition of Elements something we should celebrate?

Bringhurst has probably taken a book grounded in print typography as far as it can go. But it is, still, grounded in print. It’s hard to believe that a book revised five times in the last twenty years mentions the World Wide Web exactly twice (if you’re willing to accept a mention of “hypertext” for one of them). And don’t look in the index for those passages, because “World Wide Web”, “web”, “webfonts”, “online publishing”, “internet”, “HTML”, and “CSS” don’t appear there. “E-books” does have two entries. “Linotype machine”, by contrast and with apologies to Doug Wilson for saying so, appears twelve times. (“Monotype machine”, in case you wondered, appears four.)

This doesn’t mean Bringhurst’s book is obsolete. After all, there’s no mention of the web in Lawson’s or Tracy’s books, either. Nor will you find any in the books of Jost Hochuli, Willi Kunz, Hans Bosshard, Carl Gerstner, Emil Ruder, Helmut Schmid, Geoffrey Dowding, Nicolette Gray, Daniel Berkeley Updike, Stanley Morison, Beatrice Warde, Jan Tschichold, or Eric Gill. And Giambattista Bodoni didn’t mention the Linotype machine, or even electricity. That doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from them, that they don’t belong on the bookshelves of an educated typophile. There are principles of good typography that transcend substrates and technologies.

But all these books are products of their times and contexts, and we must read them that way, Bringhurst’s book included. The only new section in version 4.0 of Elements is a two-page examination of metal type (pgs 300–301). “To think about type”, he tells us to introduce the section, “you have to think backwards and forwards at once.” Well, yes — if you’re setting metal type. But virtually all undergraduate designers and typographers presently in school will never do that — in quantity, anyway, if at all. (It’s actually more likely they’ll set wood type.) That’s not to say that it’s a good thing they won’t, or a bad thing, simply that it’s true. So why do we recommend to them as a central text, as so many teachers and type designers do, a book that, for all its qualities, has an easier time thinking backwards?

Of course, students in any field involving typography should read it — must read it — but not first, and certainly not by itself. And not just because it’s grounded in a world of print. Display typography, which surely demands the same care that book typography does, is also nearly completely absent from the text. Even his consideration of type on the screen, smart as it is, is limited to two pages and five paragraphs.

More importantly and generally, though, for all its range and depth, and for all the generosity and precision of its advice, Elements is far better at exploring the meaning of good typography, at describing outcomes, than explaining process. The debates that brought us to what we value in good typography, the questions that remain contested, the actual means of translating principles into practice for students, are not here. And shouldn’t necessarily be. Bringhurst is the unofficial poet of typography, and a great one at that. But what I learn from Robert Frost is the meaning of woodcutting, not necessarily how to fell a tree or stack a cord of firewood.

The book isn’t without practical advice and we are fortunate that it delivers what it does. But unless Bringhurst plans a considerably expanded version 5.0 that focuses as much on web, mobile, and display typography as it does on the world of books, he should let Elements be what it is: a wonderfully written and wise summary of the world of typography as he found it. Surely others inspired by the world his text reveals to us, the beauty of his writing, and the thoughtfulness of his approach, can take it from here.

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The 1939 edition of Robert Frost’s Collected Poems contained an introductory essay that wasn’t in the first edition. In that article, entitled “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost wrote, “Like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere.”

Though he didn’t know it at the time, acclaimed photographer Joel Meyerowitz began hurling his own experiences ahead of him in 1962. While working as an art director at an advertising agency, Meyerowitz met photographer Robert Frank who was shooting a clothing brochure. Meyerowitz watched Frank move while he photographed, and he had an incredible epiphany. On the way back to the office, Meyerowitz walked the streets of New York for more than an hour. “I felt like I was reading the text of the street in a way that I never had before,” he says.

When he returned to the office, Meyerowitz told his boss, Harry Gordon, that he was quitting. He wanted to be a photographer. Gordon then asked him a crucial question: did he have a camera? The answer was no, so Gordon lent him a 35mm camera and Meyerowitz embarked on the great journey of his life.

Over the next 50 years Meyerowitz exhibited at the MoMA, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, published books and taught photography at Cooper Union. But there was always one place where you had a chance to run into him and become immortalized in his gargantuan body of work. Meyerowitz is, first and foremost, a street photographer. Though he has shot street scenes in France, Germany, Atlanta, Ohio and dozens of places in between, the chaotic streets of New York City make up his favorite studio. “Fifth Avenue is my boulevard,” he says. “No street in the world, and I’ve traveled a lot, has for me the kind of sexy, improvisatory collisions between elegance and lowness. You can see bike messengers and models, billionaires and hustlers, and it’s all out there every day.”

That first day with Robert Frank served as more than just a catalytic inspiration; it laid the foundation for how Meyerowitz would record street life. He bobs and weaves through the throngs of people, searching for that serendipitous moment that becomes a great photograph. “The way someone makes a gesture on the street or the way couples react to each other or the simultaneity of two things happening at the same time and the relationship between them,” are some of the elements he looks for. “It was the wonder of human nature and this incredible capacity for things to keep showing themselves to me,” he says.

 Taking My Time (Phaidon Press, November 2012)

Phaidon Press

Joel Meyerowitz: Taking My Time (Phaidon Press. Limited Edition including signed print, November 2012)

When he is shooting on the street, there isn’t much time to contemplate each moment. “Photography takes place in a fraction of a second,” Meyerowitz says. “There isn’t a lot of time to think about things. You have to hone your instinct. You learn to hone that skill and timing so you’re in the right place at the right time.” Although he has made images that have moved audiences for decades, that has never been his true motivation. “I’m not out there to make another ‘great picture,’” he says. “I’m really out there to feel what it feels like to be alive and conscious in that moment. In a sense, the record of my photographs is a record of moments of consciousness and awareness that have come to me in my life.”

This year, the 50th anniversary of when he first took up the camera, Meyerowitz compiled hundreds of his favorite images for the two-volume collection, Joel Meyerowitz: Taking My Time (Phaidon Press). The project isn’t just a greatest hits collection. “It’s easy to make a book of your very best things and not necessarily have a narrative arc,” he says. “I wanted to stick strictly to the chronology as precisely as I could and show my own development.” The result is a visual biography of an artist who for half a century has snapped moments–fractions of seconds–and preserved them forever. Each tells a unique story that Meyerowitz has used to pave his life. Through the images of people and places and tiny moments in time, one can see a remarkable line of purpose he has created, one that runs fluidly across the experience of his life.

Joel Meyerowitz is a New York City-based photographer. Beginning Nov. 2, his work will be displayed in a two-part solo show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York.

LightBox previously featured Meyerowitz’s photographs of the destruction and reconstruction at Ground Zero.

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"Open Space Office," a series of photographs by Tito Mouraz
Title: Robert Frost

via It's Nice That

Will 50 Watts

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