You’d probably never guess looking at these two guys, that they are real artists. Especially the guy with the glasses (his name is Mon). These are the pressmen who are printing both the Lennon and Dylan books. Thanks to the printing gods for Mon!
To appreciate his contribution you need to understand that this is the culmination of months of work. It starts with reproducing the LP artwork in Los Angeles with some very talented “pre-press” guys (supervised by a guy named Alan Forney who is brilliant, and by Frank Anastasia, who is also hugely talented and indispensible). We battle for months (not each other– the artwork) trying to get the prints just right– going through many multiple copies of old LPs (in addition to record company photo files), trying to reproduce everything the way we believe it was originally intended to look– and would have, had the current technology been available when the LPs were originally printed, and had the proper care gone into printing what, for the most part, was simply considered “packaging” in the early days.
Although we all might think we know what “Imagine” or “Plastic Ono Band” or “Highway 61 Revisited” or “Blonde on Blonde” are supposed to look like, pull out 20 old copies and you will likely find 20 different looking covers. This was the same with the Beatles, and no different for Lennon or Dylan. There are a number of different reasons for that (which I talked about when doing the Beatles project). The main point though is that it takes a lot of effort and care to get to the prints we decide to go with for the final book. Once we get there, the pre-press guys print out these beautiful “proofs” which I take with me to China to make sure that what they wind up printing for the books is exactly what we labored over for months.
And of course…it never is. We get to the point am I at now– on the printing presses in China–and all of a sudden, everything changes.
Here is the incredibly frustrating part about printing an “Art” book. Book pages are laid out in “signatures”– those grouping of pages that then get sewn together in the final book. The signatures are laid out on large “press sheets” with 6 images on each side, 3 rows of two images side by side (actually top and bottom, but turned vertically so they read side-by-side), which will then have other images printed on the backs and cut and folded and ultimately sewn together. The two images that are printed “side by side” are most often not going to be side by side in the final book (as you can visualize if you think about how the pages are nested together in the final book–and if you cant visualize that, just bear with me on this). But their positioning is crucial because the way colors are applied to a printed page on a printing press is vertical, meaning that the colors in each side by side photo (again, actually top and bottom vertical) effect each other. So, if an image that has a lot of red in it, lets say, winds up printing alongside (above or below) an image with a lot of blue in it, lets say, the red image winds up with more blue in it than it would otherwise have, and vice versa. Which dramatically effects each image. And which brings up that word that I keep hearing that always drives me crazy: compromise.
After all that time and effort, they tell me I have to compromise?!
As each press sheet is printed I get to look them over with the press men. (Literally press men– have yet to see a woman do this here). And here is where the “fun” begins. The press man will show me how much he improved the images, and I will tell him that it is very nice but, actually, the front cover of “Blonde on Blonde” is supposed to be blurry. Or the photos on Some Time in New York City were meant to look like they were printed on newspaper. But more often the colors just dont look right, or something I just cant exactly put my finger on is not right. So they have to add or subtract more red, or blue or yellow or black, or more than one or all of them. And we go through rounds and sometimes more rounds of test sheets, until at long last I dont feel like I compromised and it really is as good as (sometimes better) than the proof I came with.
Maybe you can imagine the stress levels of constantly telling someone who does this all day (i.e., prints books) that he has to change something because what i’m seeing is just not right. And each time you ask for a change, they go through a lot of wasted ink and paper. So they are not just prone to get impatient about the time its taking, but clearly they are “dis-incentivized” somehow from wasting too much ink or paper. And, i should point out that none of the press men speak English, and I dont speak Chinese. Its hard enough communicating what you mean by “this just doesn’t feel right to me” when you have some common vocabulary.
But Mon is a life saver. I dont know exactly where the line is between workman’s skill and artistic talent, but he is clearly an artist with an artist’s eye and heart. He knows himself when the image is just not right, and he will not give in until he gets it. He has never heard of Bob Dylan, and although he knows who the Beatles were, he did not know John was one of them. But when he sees a photo or image, he does not stop until he can captures its essence on the press. And its not just an issue of the time it takes, he really really gets there. There have been moments when I thought he should have lost patience, because I saw something I could not explain or felt we were still missing something subtle but crucial after ten rounds of trying, but he never has. And all I have to do is look at the photo with frustration and he will figure it out by himself–without my having to utter a comprehensible word. So many times, when i thought we would just never get there, he pulls the rabbit out of the hat and the print is beautiful.
He is one of the reasons that Bringing It All Back Home, and Highway 61 are going to look so amazing, why Wedding Album is going to be so stunning, and why Plastic Ono Band may look better than any version you have ever seen. (Of course, we would never get there in the first place without Alan and Frank… but thats a story for another day).