Power to the People: Geoff Kaplan

Curator: MacFadden & Thorpe
date: November 10, 2012
Categories: Book & Magazine Design
Cover of Power to the People

Today we’d like to share a special sneak preview of a book edited, coauthored and designed by Geoff Kaplan of General Working Group. The book, entitled Power to the People: The Graphic Design of the Radical Press and the Rise of the Counter-Culture, 1964–1974, will be published in February by the University of Chicago Press. The book looks at the radical movements of the ’60s and ’70s through the graphic frame of their publications and propaganda.

We’ve known Geoff for many years, and we originally connected with him through the Cranbrook network, where both he and Brett studied. Geoff has long been interested in design that packs a purpose beyond being simply organized or attractive. In his own work and in the publications revealed in this book, he gravitates toward the experimental and adventurous over the well-behaved. “Disruptive” is one of those terms that has been jargonized by the business world to the point of nonsense, but the publications featured in Power to the People truly strove to be disruptive, as tools for activism.

Power to The People has been in the works for more than a half-decade—with materials culled from the archives of U.C. Berkeley, Stanford,  NYU, the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Getty, the California Historical Society and others. In this research, Geoff unearthed a broad range of underground publications, from the Black Panthers Party Paper, to the sublimely trippy Oz. As cheap offset printing became more accessible, these publications become a primary channel of communication with the public: a powerful tool to spread messages of civil rights, alternative politics, spirituality, sexual liberation and a spectrum of other agendas. 

Visually, the publications were compellingly illustrated and designed, particularly on their covers, where low budgets might bring the publication’s only color imagery. Charmingly amateurish, psychedelic, experimental or highly professional, the design of the publications brought energy and authority to their causes. Many of these publications have disappeared from the public eye since their original distribution, and we’re looking forward to seeing them when the book is released early next year.

A spread and covers from Oz (London, 1967)

Covers from Vector, a gay culture magazine (San Francisco,1964–1972)

A spread from the Oracle (San Francisco, 1967)

Clear Creek (San Francisco, 1971) focused on the environment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alan.asnen Alan Asnen

    The East Village Other was one
    of the first underground newspapers and the one throughout the period with the
    highest circulation and the largest number of non-advertising pages. EVO
    is mentioned a bare three times, only once in any way one could consider
    directly. There are no graphics from EVO, which arguably had the best graphics
    staff (and consistently had the best covers, which accounted for that high
    circulation). It isn’t even listed in the Index.


    The book ignores other papers whole and downplays others,
    and it gives far too much weight to extraordinarily minor papers like John
    Wilcock’s Other Scenes which had a circulation of something in the neighborhood
    of 3. Prof. Kaplan
    wasted some great opportunities here to get the record straight. Perhaps he
    relied too much on his contributors to do the work for him and they let him
    down. Paul Krasner was there. Indeed, he was among the original publishers of
    EVO (along with Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Tuli Kupferberg and other
    notables of the day). But Krasner was pushed out after a while. So it isn’t surprising that among his contributions
    were not a single word about EVO. The most came from a “temp”
    cartoonist and paste-up helper by the name of Steven Heller who I don’t
    remember (but there were plenty of people coming and going at times). He made a
    strange remark about paste-up night being “part makeup and part make-out
    session.” In all my years there I only remember one real make-out session,
    and that was when the inimitable Dean Latimer blew through town with some girls
    from the University of Alabama and some Owsley acid. We did have a great
    make-out couch behind the paste-up area, but we used it to nap in shifts, not
    make-out. Heller was probably trying to come up with a neat rhetorical trick.


    The graphics in Power to the People are abundant and, for
    the most part, impressive. But a third of them could have been dropped so that
    the omissions could have been included. And there is no excuse for their
    exclusion. They are readily available (at least
    that’s the case for the EVO back files, and has been for decades). I won’t tout
    my own work (although some of it was pretty good and one or two pieces were
    actually historic from a technical perspective–a subject that Kaplan claims to
    cover in his book but doesn’t to any genuine extent) but we had regular artists
    during the heyday like the late Spain Rodriguez, Peter Mikliunas and Kim Deitch
    who produced graphics and cartoons that no one else in the underground press
    could compete with. And, of course, everyone else copied, or tried to. And not
    just the underground press, but the mainstream press as well, after a time.
    Esquire, The New York Times, Playboy, Time, Newsweek.


    I read through the other short essays and, for the most
    part, they seemed to be 21st century commentaries on what the sixties were.
    That’s okay for what it’s worth, but for the most part it has little to do with
    what was going on then. Sure, all of these things were a part of what was
    taking place; but these issues were not the central issues back then. They are
    the central issues now. Back then the central issues were the war, civil
    rights, and the idea of being free from people telling you what to do with your
    life. That last part has become the issues in specification today–women’s
    rights, LGBTQ rights, anti-corporatism, etc–and that’s mostly what the essays
    are about, I think. But, that may be my interpretation. But we didn’t have the
    same perspective in the late 1960s and early 1970s as we have today, obviously,
    so the work we did then speaks to these issues–when they speak to them at
    all–in a very different manner. That has to be understood clearly by anyone
    under the age of 60 before the work is seen. For example, the gay press is,
    frankly, over-represented in Power to the People. In today’s world it makes
    sense to give that kind of representation to that work. But that work didn’t
    have the, for lack of a better word, market-share in the day. The gay press
    didn’t have space on public newsstands (neither did some “straight”
    underground papers) until very late in the period, and in some parts of the
    country not until recently. So most of these papers were “distributed”
    from one hand to another. When your market is so small you end up virtually
    talking to yourself, communicating to your family and friends, not even your
    larger community. It’s much like having a popular college literature magazine
    in a small town. It may not limit what you are doing, but it limits the range
    of feedback and thus your growth. And it just wasn’t seen nearly as much as the
    representation here would give the impression, at least not outside the very
    private and insular–at the time–gay community. Most of us didn’t know it was
    happening until well into the 1970s, even after Stonewall.


    The longer opening essays by “Laurel” that speak
    to the technical issues cover a lot of things that were relevant but simply
    were not true in most cases as she explains them, or at least as she gives the
    impression. Most papers were using equipment from the stone age when they
    started in the early 1960s. Our photostat machine I think may have been used
    during the Grant administration. I learned everything I knew about the art of
    photo-copying on that machine and in that darkroom, and my experience was being
    repeated in Boston and Ann Arbor and Berkeley and Miami and many other places
    (I know this because a few years later, thanks to Bob
    bless-me-I-can’t-remember-his-last-name I was the second employee of the
    Underground Press Syndicate and talked to people in these places and found out
    their histories). For paste-up we used rubber cement and little rubber erasers
    when we used too much to clean off the gunk. We drudged humped over makeshift
    light boxes, sawed and hammered together by our go-fer, Fred, a short, not so
    handsome Italian guy who was also a little short under the hair. We made fun of
    him incessantly–it was New York in the sixties, after all, and we hadn’t yet
    learned to be nice to people–mostly because he was always making passes at the
    women in our office who tried to be nice to him but always ended up having to
    yell at him to take a long walk off a short pier.


    It wasn’t until the technology went completely cold press in
    the early 1970s, and we could slap together a 32-page paper with columns and
    photos overnight with two people–and I did that several times before I ran out
    of steam and quit–that situations changed. Especially in New York and the
    other major cities, the mob(s) took over the straight and gay underground porn
    papers and then the distribution for most of the larger underground papers and
    the industry started to change in parts and die in parts. For example, some
    people stayed on at EVO, trying to tough it out, while others went West to the
    Soho Weekly News (and tried to tough it out there in a completely different
    manner). Others just quit outright.

blog comments powered by Disqus