Interview by Laura Richard Janku. Published in 2006.
Laura Richard Janku: You have called working on Emigre magazine “the greatest job in the world.” Why did you lay yourself off?
RvdL: I still have the greatest job in the world, it just doesn’t include making a magazine anymore. I’ll be concentrating more on the design of our catalogs, type specimen booklets, and my photo books. Plus, we’re redesigning the Emigre web site. Publishing the magazine was a terrific experience in many ways, but I started running out of ideas. Although in many ways, the catalogs and books I’m doing now are not very different in nature from Emigre magazine.
LRJ: Is the print design avant-garde over? If not, what directions remain to be taken?
RvdL: Design has so many facets to it there are always people pushing boundaries in some area of our profession. I’m sure there are many areas left unexplored. And I’m sure somewhere, some designers are thinking up new ways of making design. But you can’t really force these things to happen, and it’s difficult to recognize their value when they’re in their infancy. We were laughed at when we were designing our low resolution typefaces for the computer in 1985. Almost nobody took us serious. We were lucky, though. We were around when there was a major change in the tools of graphic design. New directions open up when technologies change.
LRJ: You once said that “A well-designed independent fan zine is an oxymoron.” Does that still hold true? Or has the ‘zine subculture become mainstream enough and design technology accessible enough to encourage well-planned and printed DIY publications?
RvdL: Emigre started publishing in the days when punk and DIY was in its heydays. Punk was anti-establishment, and anything that reeked of professionalism was mistrusted and avoided, including anything that was “well-designed.” Today, DIY has a very different connotation. Now it’s all about mimicking professionalism.
LRJ: Why did you choose to not self-publish the final issue of Emigre? And why Princeton Architectural Review?
RvdL: Actually, Princeton Architectural Press in New York published the final six issues of Emigre magazine. Emigre has gone through a lot of physical changes over the years. Since we are a graphic design magazine, it made sense to explore different formats. We’ve gone from oversized tabloid to small cardboard sleeves with CDs in it. One format left to explore was the cheap trade paperback or pocketbook. And what better way to do that than to have it published by a New York publisher. I approached Princeton with the idea and they jumped on the opportunity.
LRJ: Will you be focusing more on your photography or book works?
RvdL: Both. For me photography works best in book form. I love to tell stories, and books are the perfect medium. Plus, books are affordable for people to buy. I like that aspect of making multiples.
LRJ: Could you describe Pages from an Imaginary Book and the resulting 13 Big Landscapes series of photographs?
RvdL: I was invited by OneStar Press in Paris to make a book as part of a series of artist’s books they publish. I could do what I liked. The only restriction was the physical shape of the book. Since the books are part of a series, they all have to be the same size, use the same cheap, uncoated paper, same perfect binding, and one color printing, black. The books are produced very inexpensively. It’s right up my alley, because I actually like the dramatic effect of cheap printing. For instance, I’ve always enjoyed the look and feel of those little unassuming photographs of the desert that you may find in cheaply printed nature guides, or a history book, where the photograph is simply used to give a rough idea of an area or a particular kind of shrub. There’s no pretension. Yet those kinds of snap shots, to me, are sometimes as intriguing and fascinating as some of the most lyrical $150,000 landscape photographs made by Richard Misrach or Ansel Adams.
With Pages from an Imaginary Book I tried to make a photo book that mimicked the understated, non-pretentious quality of utilitarian, anonymous and almost generic looking photographs. The parameters and restrictions of this book, its low quality reproduction, etc., offered the perfect opportunity to get that effect across. The photos I used in the book were all cropped from color slides that I had discarded earlier, slides that never really made the cut.
LRJ: You assert that the “cheap third-world printing” of Pages from an Imaginary Book was a way to “comment about the near impossibility of perfect reproductions.” Was 13 Big Landscapes a part of that project from the beginning, or did it seem necessary to clarify your ideas and intentions?
RvdL: 13 Big Landscapes came about after I showed Pages from an Imaginary Book to a photo dealer here in S.F. He looked at the book and liked the photos, but thought that the reproductions were really bad. Like most people, he assumed he was looking at reproductions made from some beautiful original black and white prints. Of course there were no originals. You could say that the photos in the book were the originals. They were processed in a particular way with the book as their ultimate realization. There’s an expectation, especially with professional photo people, how art photos should appear when printed in art books, particularly in landscape photography. And there’s a presumption that there’s always an original that’s being reproduced. This gave me the idea to turn things upside down. Instead of trying to match originals in print, I decided to make prints based on the reproductions in the book and see where that would lead me.
LRJ: So, if 13 Big Landscapes are considered the reproductions of the “originals” in Pages, shouldn’t there be just a few books and endless canvases?
RvdL: Actually, the book was printed in a limited edition of 250 signed and numbered copies. And I suggested to the gallery to publish the canvasses as an unlimited edition, but the gallery didn’t like that idea. They were concerned this would make it less interesting for people to buy the canvasses. And they’re probably right. But it shows that it’s very difficult to break out of the standard ways of making, showing, reproducing and selling art. Every aspect of the art racket is expected to work in a specific way. But it’s an interesting challenge to try and subvert some of these notions.
LRJ: What role did fetishization and the merger of high and low cultures — both in artworks and books — play in making this work?
RvdL: All of these issues probably played some role in this work. I’m very aware that the work I make is part of a large continuum. And the California landscape in particular has been the subject of so much art. It has been the backdrop and topic of so many movies, photography, painting, advertising, it’s difficult to find new ways of approaching it. My particular interest with this project lies with the reproduction of these images, which ties in nicely with my other life as a graphic designer.
LRJ: Should we be interested in the images themselves or are they merely vehicles for subverting the reproduction process, the landscape genre and the romanticism of the American West?
RvdL: All of the above. But in the end I hope that someone will say they really like the look and feel of these images, and that they like the curiosity of these unassuming, black and white, pedestrian images, and that they like how the coarse quality of the images adds to the grittiness of those desert landscapes.
LRJ: About the Landscapes you say, “All art finds its common quality in the halftone dots that reproduce it.” Are you also drawing parallels between two binary systems of communication: the black-and-white benday dots of halftone printing and the zeroes and ones of computer code in digital typography?
RvdL: No, that never occurred to me. But it just goes to show you that people read your work and your writing in ways you can never fully predict or control. Sometimes that actually helps infuse the work with qualities you never imagined.
LRJ: Do you consider the 13 Big Landscapes to be paintings, photographs or prints?
RvdL: They’re probably closest to photography, although they’re more about photography than anything else.
LRJ: Were there technical challenges in printing the works?
RvdL: The printing was done by Urban Digital Color in S.F. They worked from PDF files that I supplied. And they are very knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to making large prints. I couldn’t have made these prints without their enthusiasm and expertise. It’s one thing to have the concepts and ideas, but it’s very difficult to find the right people willing to help you realize them. After printing them, onto canvas, they were then stretched onto stretchers by a professional framer. It cost a lot of money to do this, but I couldn’t have done it without all these other professional crafts people.
LRJ: How does Pages from an Imaginary Book relate to your earlier books like Supermarket and the desert series Palm Desert, Cucamonga, and Joshua Tree?
RvdL: They relate mostly in subject matter. Although I am by no means a naturalist, I’m fascinated by the Southern California desert. I couldn’t tell a salamander from a lizard, but I do recognize the desert as a very special place. And not just naturally or geologically, but also in terms of the politics of land use, and our perception of the desert through its portrayal in movies and commercials. Perhaps the desert fascinates me because it’s so much the opposite of my home country (Holland). Although someone once pointed out they have one thing in common: both the desert and Holland used to be fully covered with water.