Essay by Eakins Press Founder,
Leslie George Katz (1918-1997)
If a lone individual sets out to communicate with the world by being a publisher of one or two books a year he had best act out of passion as he gains experience. This neophyte publisher did not expect to change the world, but he longed to lend his mite of choice, as behooves a representative human animal. He had confidence in the message. He put his trust in an enlightened stubbornness of enterprise that his chosen heroes and heroines maintained as they led him from the dark interiors toward a bright distinction loitering just around the corner. Had he not breathed his way effectively through patient service to normality, while secretly understanding he was a misfit? He had paid his dues to society. Now it was his turn to do honor to his mentors, old and new, as best he could.
The Eakins Press Foundation is named for Thomas Eakins, America's greatest painter. His name brings to mind the possibility of an artist becoming a hero of principle. In significant works of art there exists an element that parallels the esthetic of design. The courageous life and complex achievement of Eakins, which brought the lifelong rejection amounting to persecution he endured, still clings to his reputation. Meanwhile, pornography, debasement, the obscene scourge of advertising, grovel to new lows and the mob audience is brutalized for profit. Other American originals, such as Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, were neglected for years but now have full recognition. The originality of Thomas Eakins resists popularity. He is too profound a truth-sayer. Something in his genius turns portraiture into the stuff of literature. Each face is a study of individuality, an emblem and a register of experience, suffering sensitivity. He saw beauty in age, and character in survival. He personifies the indissoluble relation that unites the true and the esthetic. His paintings can be read as parables of the role of art. This is what Whitman may have meant when he said Eakins was not a painter but a force.
The Eakins Press Foundation was formed to do some kind of appropriate honor to Thomas Eakins, out of a recurrent whim of obsession born of both confidence and despair to show the perpetual and living relation of his art to the present. It was the personal gambit of a private desire that for satisfaction posed as open-minded, whereas, in secret, it was circumscribed; only someone very interested might detect the dimensions of its continuity.
A would-be publisher, he knew what he wanted. He had a sufficient patrimony. The content of the books would match their design. The first two published would set the standard and establish the continuity, such as it might be, of what would follow. One should be a counterpart of Thomas Eakins. The other should be a present-day embodiment of what Eakins was.
The first book Eakins Press produced was a replica of the first 1855 edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the book of twelve poems Whitman published and paid for, setting a few pages of type himself. The original version of the text had been rediscovered and issued as a pocket-sized paperback, with its credo of Preface. Few readers had been aware of the first edition of Whitman's first book as the extraordinary object it was, large and graceful in the hand, architectural. On the cover the earth was pebbled green and the grass was tangled gold leaf. And Whitman's name was not on it. Instead, his first appearance was that of an anonymous person who could be, and was, you, me, or him.
For the second book we hoped to obtain permission to publish a small group of photographs by Walker Evans. Through a friend, we met. He admired the Eakins Press Leaves of Grass, and agreed to let us publish a work of his. Instead of designing a small book of small pictures, we decided to publish twelve large prints in an album (an uncommon idea at the time). We printed by means of sheet-fed gravure, which makes possible the deep matte-finished black of etchings. Walker provided the title: Message from the Interior. We shared an understanding of the importance of Whitman. Years later, when the time came for the Walker Evans retrospective exhibition and a major book was published by the Museum of Modern Art, Walker chose for the epigraph some words of Whitman: "I do not doubt but that the majesty & beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world "With the Evans photographs titled "Alabama Fireplace, 1936" and "Kingston Station, Rhode Island, 1953," we have quoted two comments concerning Evans' famous first book, American Photographs. The first is a quote from William Carlos Williams, who states that in an Evans photograph "... We see what we have not heretofore realized, ourselves made worthy in our anonymity." It is primarily as anonymous persons that we belong to humanity and life. We are at best representatives of the human race. Among a series of profound observations in American Photographs, Lincoln Kirstein stated that we live in "an epoch so crass and so corrupt that the only purity of the ordinary individual is unconscious." Suddenly, with that phrase, the merit of the state of "unconsciousness" is rescued. Instead of being a negative cliché, unconsciousness becomes a dynamic means of self-preservation. To be "unconscious" can mean being unaware of the extraneous. Consider the fate of being conscious in our civilization. We are conscious of what? Mostly, triviality, detraction, disrelation. Consciousness has been usurped and harnessed through manipulation, via outright lies, and through advertising. The unconscious has been strenuously maligned. Out from under the debris of didactic exploitation, when we see ourselves and others as we are, we may become free.
Message from the interior. There is a message, there is an interior. We hope you will enjoy this catalogue and our books.
A book, like a shoe, a coat, or a baseball mitt, is made for use or wear if it is serious. Repeated use only deepens its character. Where excellence is concerned, each component of the book engages a special sensibility: paper, ink, type, presswork, binding, cover, jacket. The designer supervises and orchestrates these very different elements. There is no minor role where quality rules and words are to convey meaning. Every person involved is of consequential importance and valuable identity. Where care is conscience, community exists. Behind each detail is a watchful intelligence. This space is reserved to acknowledge, credit, and express appreciation and comradeship and gratitude that exists and persists. Any four individuals may serve to represent all. Four in particular suggest the rest of us.
Edith McKeon Abbott
One can hardly expect to find recognizable perfection of book design and style at the outset of production. The first eighteen books of the Eakins Press were designed by Edith McKeon Abbott. Each book is perfection. Each achieved an innocence of style and rendition from the roots of the alphabet. If the Eakins Press can ever be said to have made any contribution to American standards of design, Edith McKeon Abbott deserves the credit.
Richard Benson is renowned as the aristocrat of the printed dot. His work is a subtle and relentless exploration of tonalities. He confirms authenticity by fanatical devotion to techniques of simulation that gratify the manifold hunger for illusion. But it is always with the precision of an observer who knows who things should look, not a magician, that he extends the horizons of the eye.
Continuity is essential in publishing, as much from the perspective of design elegance as from the foundation of history. Howard Gralla, who has shaped the appearance and functionality of the books of the Eakins Press from his first remarkable contribution to our catalogue, Lincoln Kirstein: A First Bibliography in 1977 to the recent, 2015, 'O, Write My Name': American Portraits, Harlem Heroes, photographs by Carl Van Vechten, is effectively the anchor of the vision and design integrity of the Press. This phrase by Flaubert is a good description of Howard's dependable contribution to all that he touches: "The moral is not only a part of the esthetic; it is its condition foundationally."
To coordinate is to create. For example, when Harvey Simmonds (Brother Benedict) was chosen to lead the magnificent task of assembling a complete, detailed listing of every ballet George Balanchine devised during his protean career, everyone who knew him had complete confidence in his ability. In the process the staff he led found themselves in touch with the Universe. The entire world is Harvey's community and connecting it is his mission.