WHEN I LOOK over the shelf of local books I've accumulated in 10 years of writing about the arts and history in Tucson, I cast my eye on any number of handsome volumes:
· The Buehman Studio: Tucson in Focus, a beautifully designed compendium of historic Tucson photos and text, printed on glossy papers and spiced up by titles in an antique typeface.
· Lola Alvarez Bravo: In Her Own Light, a breathtaking celebration in black and white of the Mexican photographer's luminous photographs.
· Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth, a sturdy biography of the Grand Canyon architect, complete with text, photographs and black period ornamentation at the bottom of each page.
What I didn't know until I stopped at a show at the University of Arizona Special Collections was that all these books, and many more, were the work of a single Tucson artist: Nancy Solomon. Not that Solomon took the photographs or drew the sketches or even wrote the texts. No, her task is far more anonymous than that of an author or illustrator. Solomon is a book designer, one of the best in these parts, and it's her unsung job to assemble the raw materials of word and image into beautiful books.
Few outside book publishing know exactly what a book designer does. But even the checklist of a designer's tasks -- selecting typeface, plotting layout, getting the best photo reproduction possible, choosing paper, staying within budget -- doesn't begin to explain the importance of the designer's eye and hand. The whole she creates is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
The small show of Solomon's works at the library has been given the apt title The Invisible Artist: Nancy Solomon Book Designer. A book designer should be invisible -- a good book design, said typographer Beatrice Warde, is like a crystal goblet, a transparent container that reveals its contents with clarity -- but this exhibition has thankfully rendered Solomon the artist visible to the general public. In a series of glass cases, visitors can admire some of her most successful projects, including several dozen books, almost all of them illustrated, a trio of exhibition posters, fine photography journals and some handmade books of her own.
In a career of several decades' duration, Solomon has designed books for the University of Arizona Press, Northland Press and the Tucson Museum of Art (a fine exhibition catalog for the painter Nancy Tokar Miller is on display). Solomon also worked full-time as director of publications as well as publicity at the Center for Creative Photography, until retiring last December. In between her unceasing efforts to promote the Center's shows and to share her encyclopedic knowledge of photography with reporters, Solomon was designing some of the most beautiful photography books around.
The Alvarez Bravo volume, featured in the show, is a case in point. Writing in this exhibition's catalog, designed, naturally, by Solomon herself, friend and colleague Robert Hershoff of the UA Library lovingly recalls the "Lola Alvarez Bravo monograph, whose haunting images float on seemingly transparent pages of text." The book is an austere symphony in black and white, paying homage to a single artist's vision. Another photography book in the show, Arizona Photographers: The Snell & Wilmer Collection, shows Solomon's skill at gathering together a much less coherent collection of works. Photographed by artists of wildly different styles, the pictures are in color and in black and white, and in disparate sizes and shapes. Solomon nevertheless displayed her design wisdom, giving the book coherence by grouping color with color, and establishing a rhythmic relationship between small photos and big.
Still another book from her Center days is the massive Edward Weston: The Photographs by Amy Conger, a 1992 volume that features all 1,826 Weston photographs in the Center's archive. In a catalog note, Solomon casually mentions that making the 600-page book was a six-year undertaking. Solomon evidently emerged undaunted from a half-dozen years of sizing Weston's works and reproducing them in the most useful possible way. In fact, she specializes in the kinds of complicated books that chill editors' hearts.
Trees and Shrubs of the Southwest Deserts, a 1981 University of Arizona Press gardener's guide by Lyman D. Benson that's in the show, is a fat volume full of text, photos, life zone maps, and plant drawings. No one is looking for Art with a capital "A" in a guidebook, but without Solomon's elegant orchestration the book's myriad parts could have dissolved into unusable chaos. Instead, it's an attractive and useful work, with pictures right where they should be to support the text.
Solomon herself has given much thought to her role. In a catalog essay, she writes, "My work in book design always begins with the content....And, I must understand the reader. This reader will quickly lapse into that reading trance where seamlessly, unconsciously, the author's voice and the reader's mind become one. I design my books to prolong this magical communication. If the reader is 'lost in a book,' the form of my design is a steady anchor, a reliable base map."
Her most lovable books are the simple works of pure artistry. The artist Carol Brown does small color pencil drawings of the Western landscape (she exhibited a suite of her outdoor work at Etherton Gallery some years ago). Solomon designed a marvelous vehicle for Brown's tiny postcards from the wilderness. Published in 1987 by Witkin Gallery as Canyon Sketchbook, the book is as much like Brown's plein-air sketchbook as possible. Brown's own handwriting is reproduced as the text, and taskmaster Solomon had her write her paragraphs over and over to fit the page designs. Brown's drawings are loose and free, and like good Westerners her lines regularly roam outside their designated boundaries. Escaped lines like these typically fall victim to standard reproduction methods; usually they'd be overlayed with a rigid rectangular mask. To Solomon, who prizes Brown's drawings for their "joyful sense of being in natural light," it was unthinkable to allow a rigid design to compromise the art. She insisted on preserving their "wild edges."
The only solution was for Solomon to make, painstakingly, one by one, a unique, jaggedy-edged photographic mask for every single landscape in the book. And so she did it, mask by mask. And Brown's book is all the more beautiful and true for Solomon's unseen hand.
The Invisible Artist: Nancy Solomon Book Designer continues through Friday, April 28, at the UA Main Library, Special Collections, on the Mall at the southwest corner of University Boulevard and Cherry Avenue. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday; and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call 621-4295.