The Printed Picture by Richard Benson.  344pp, 8″ x 10-1/2″, 978-0-87070-721-6, The Museum of Modern Art, $60 (but Amazon is offering it at $37.80).

This is a brilliant book.  It’s one of those that made me say “I wouldn’t mind if I spent the rest of my life reading this book”.

Richard Benson is a born teacher, a photographer, a collector of printed pieces, a fan, especially of offset lithography, and former Dean of the Yale School of Art.  He writes beautifully and every page illustrates his immense enthusiasm for his subject.  The book works as a series of two-page spreads, each one discussing a particular printed piece.  We start with hand prints on cave walls and move through woodblocks, hand lettered pages, engravings, etchings, aquatints, mezzotints, stencils, silk screen prints, all manner of photographs, collotype, offset, etc, etc, to digital printing.  Centrally it is a study of the evolution of the printing of photographs.  The book contains an eight-page introduction to color theory, which any one of us can learn from.  Many of the pieces illustrated are beautiful in their own right, while others may be mundane — the sort of printed piece we’d all tend to throw away, but which nevertheless has its own range of technical problems magnificently overcome, which it takes someone with the right training and empathy to pick out and explain.

One of the many specially striking pieces shows a wood-engraved photograph from the last decade of the nineteenth century.  The photo was exposed onto a wood block which was then engraved by a craftsman/artist, and printed from a stereo by a steam-driven letterpress machine.  The result is beautiful: it’s like a hyperrealist painting in a way.  This one covers four pages, the second spread being given over to a detail of the eyes and nose of the subject, Frederick Law Olmsted.  The workmanship is amazing: all done by hand with a magnifying glass and a burin.

The book is beautifully printed by 4 color offset by GHP, West Haven, Connecticut on 100lb. Value Silk.  The challenges of printing images which were themselves originally printed (often excellently) by a wide range of different methods is triumphantly overcome.  It’s smythe sewn in a case made of matte laminated paper over boards, with a square back with board in spine.  Buy one, you won’t regret it.