Sunday, December 18, 2011

Schiffer Releases Ironwork Today 3

Any readers who are artisan smiths might remember that about two years back there was an open call for current work to be included in a new volume in the Ironwork Today series.

There is a bit of a story behind this series. Author Donna Meilach had written an influential volume Decorative and Sculptural Ironwork, back in the late 1970's. Donna had taken a number of courses in smithing, then spent time with the developing art smithing movement, primarily in the South West USA. Her survey book was the first to cross the divide between the practical world of working smiths and the more abstract vision of the artist and fine art curator. Along with short b&w photo essays illustrating how individual smiths created particular objects, there were collections of some of the best artistic blacksmithing work of the time.
Donna remained an active participant at ABANA conferences, and in the developing internet. In the late 1990's Donna decided to revise the original Decorative & Sculptural. At the time she made an open call through the internet discussion groups for additional images of recent work to be included in the central gallery section of the book. Yikes! She got a huge number of submissions of both high quality contemporary work - with suitable quality images. So many in fact, that she launched on a series of a half dozen additional survey works. The last of these was Ironwork Today, Inside and Out. As the series of books progressed, an increasing number of Ontario artisan blacksmiths had their work included.
But Donna was never able to complete the intended Ironwork Today 2. On her untimely death, the task of completing book two was assumed by Jeffrey Snyder. (Questionably, although Donna's hand is obvious in this book, Snyder assumes sole authorship.)

To get a submission of work into this kind of volume, not only does the work itself need to have both solid technique and outstanding design. The photographs themselves need to be both of high quality and striking in composition as well. (A word to the wise here - always take the time to get the best possible images of your work as it is completed and installed.)

Ironwork Today 3, after several delays, has just been released. In past volumes in the series, objects were grouped by type. Snyder has chosen to give each individual a separate section, listed alphabetically. A total of over 70 individuals are featured. Again there some local artisans are included, with submissions from OABA members Darrell Markewitz, David McCord, and David Robertson.

My first criticism is of Snyder's basic method. Although he is listed as an author, in reality he is at best only an editor of other people's work. It is clear that each individual contributor has written their individual statements and commentaries. Because of this, the book has no overall structure, save as an alphabetical list. This is a flaw that extends right back to the initial call for submissions, where the instructions about content were vague .
This also extends to the variation in the images themselves. Some are overview shots on white seamless backgrounds (thus lacking in detail). Some are extreme close-ups in high contrast (thus lacking context). Some have the look of the work of professional photographers, some obviously are lower quality work of the contributing smiths themselves.
I find that the variation in quality also extends to both the commentaries and descriptions. The type of content included for each artist is not consistent. It is so obvious that many of those included have learned the lingo of the art critic:
" The architectural framework of a piece becomes a canvas onto which I can paint an iron improvisation. Artistic blacksmithing is for me the place where Fire, Rhythm, Iron and Ideas meet and cause a spontaneous combustion of my spirit that I can only watch manifest"
(John Winer)
Not only are such grand pronouncements questionable, seeing page after page of so many attempting to frame up the same kind of rationalization gets extremely annoying.
On the quality of the work side, there is obviously a sliding of the scale downwards in relation to past volumes. There are more of examples of work that may be nice, but frankly not exceptional. If only speaking for myself, I was highly honoured to have been included in Donna's last book, but find the relative quality of my own work appears artificially shifted higher if Ironwork 3 was in fact the standard.

It is nice to see your work illustrated in book form, but the lack of direction and frankly lack of visible contribution by Snyder results in a volume that is little more than a vanity publication.
So taken in total, I would suggest that the cover price (roughly $55 US) on Ironwork Today 3 might be better spent on one of the earlier books by Donna Meilach. Most especially a copy of Decorative & Sculptural Ironwork, if that is not already in your library.

Other books by Donna Meilach :
Architectural Ironwork
The Contemporary Blacksmith
Decorative and Sculptural Ironwork
Direct Metal Sculpture
Fireplace Accessories
Ironwork - Dynamic Details
Ironwork Today, Inside and Out
Ironwork Today 2 (although not credited)

On a strictly personal note, although I was happy to be included, I was displeased that neither my web site or my e-mail address had been included on my own section. Both were given for most all the other contributors.

PS - I was highly annoyed by Schiffer's shipping costs. My $175 order of books cost some $70 to mail to Wareham (from Pennsylvania).

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February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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