The Write Stuff

Book reviews: Big, beautiful books

New Mexico block prints and Yellowstone redux

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This week’s books are dedicated undertakings by their authors. The first is an extensive look at block printmaking while the second is a photographic study of Yellowstone National Park with a twist.

The Carved Line: Block Printmaking in New Mexico

How do I summarize a book this size about block printmaking in 350 words or so? It isn’t easy because author Josie Lopez so thoroughly researched the topic.

The result is a hefty 248-page book with 120 illustrations of block prints created by noted New Mexico artists.

Lopez, an art historian and curator, writes that block printmaking enjoyed a fine arts revival during the late 19th century. She writes, “A block of wood or linoleum, a gouging tool, ink, and paper are all that is necessary to produce a block print, yet the versatile qualities of the medium captured the imagination of artists throughout the twentieth century and continue to do so today.”

The book is divided into 10 chapters, from “What Is a Block Print?” to “Block Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century.”

Block printmaking made art affordable for average people. Artist Gustave Baumann, who came first to Taos but settled in Santa Fe, put it this way: “My idea is to produce good pictures at low cost. … I wish to make stuff for folk who can’t afford to buy things just because they cost a lot.”

Yes, Taos artists are a big part of this block printmaking history. Here are some familiar names: Oscar Berninghaus; Andrew Dasburg; Howard Cook; Barbara Latham; Ernest, Helen and Mary Blumenschein; Bill Gersh; and Robert C. Ellis.

Lest we think only gringo newcomers produced block prints, Lopez also writes about Hispanic and American Indian printmakers. The cover features a color woodcut by T.C. Cannon, a member of the Kiowa tribe, called, “Grandmother Gestating Father and the Washita River Runs Ribbon-Like.” In that image, a very pregnant woman holding an umbrella owns the moment.

Chapter 10 contains profiles of contemporary block printmakers, including Christa Marquez, a member of Pressing On in Taos.

Fans of this form of printmaking will appreciate Lopez’s exhaustive study and certainly photos of the prints.

“The Carved Line: Block Printmaking in New Mexico” is a 9-by-12-inch hardcover published by the Museum of New Mexico Press. It costs $39.95.

Yellowstone National Park Through the Lens of Time

Photographer William Henry Jackson was part of the 1871 Hayden Survey of what is now Yellowstone National Park. Back then, it was only a wilderness worth saving. While Jackson wasn’t the only early Yellowstone photographer, his photos were instrumental in its establishment as a national park.

Zoom ahead 140 years. Photojournalist Bradly J. Boner set out on foot and boat to capture modern versions of Jackson’s photography. Hence, we have the term “rephotography.”

Jackson’s photos, naturally, are black and white. Boner’s shots, taken from 2011 to 2014, are in color. The result is a 12-by-13-inch volume filled with photos and history about Yellowstone, the Hayden Survey and this project.

Boner, who visited Yellowstone when he was 10, began the project with what he calls “a personal curiosity” fueled by that memorable visit.

So who was Jackson? He was a Civil War veteran who left Vermont to work as a bullwhacker on a wagon train. In 1867, he and his brother took over a photography studio and galleries in Omaha, Nebraska.

He shot the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, then joined Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden’s survey team in the Wild West, which eventually led to the Yellowstone expedition.

Jackson used two cameras: an 8-by-10-inch that yielded a single glass negative that size and a 6 ½-by-8 ½-inch stereoscopic-view camera that produced a pair of images side by side on a single plate.

Both used the collodion wet-plate process to create negatives. Jackson had a light-tight tent set up in the field as a portable darkroom. (There’s a great photo of that in the book.)

As for Boner, his trick was to pinpoint the precise spots Jackson photographed. “It took a fair amount of scouting to find the exact vantage point where Jackson stood to create several of his images,” he writes.

Despite the conveniences of our century, Boner encountered challenges such as crossing the Yellowstone River in cold waist-deep water to save a 14-mile round-trip hike. Yes, this was grizzly bear country.

Each pair of photographs has hefty captions about Jackson and Boner’s images, with notations about the changes made to accommodate park visitors.

Certainly, this book would be of great interest to fans of Yellowstone National Park and Western history.

Published by the University Press of Colorado, “Yellowstone National Park Through the Lens of Time” is a 297-page hardcover costing $39.95.

Joan Livingston is a writer and reader living in Ranchos de Taos. For more information, visit joanlivingston.net.

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