- Power to the People: The Graphic Design of the Radical Press and the Rise of the Counter-Culture, 1964–1974. ed. by Geoff Kaplan
It is appropriate that Geoff Kaplan’s visual history of the countercultural press should take 1964 as its starting point. That was the year Marshall McLuhan famously posited that “The medium is the message” in his groundbreaking book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan advanced the idea that a medium’s material and symbolic form was coextensive with whatever message it sought to communicate. His dictum became particularly meaningful to the era’s emerging social movements. If mainstream media was, by definition, tied up with corporate and governmental interests, then the counterculture had to rely on new ways—that is, new media—to propagate their ideas. Thus, in the mid-1960s, [End Page 116] groups that were variously associated with the New Left, Black Power, and women’s and gay liberation began publishing periodicals that both reflected and disseminated their ideology, culture, and politics. They did so not only to exercise self-determination in their narratives but also to literally visualize alternatives—their alternatives—to the prevailing social order.
Kaplan, a graphic designer and faculty member at California College of the Arts, presents a sumptuously illustrated survey of almost ninety periodicals, most of whose runs were completed between 1964 and 1974. Each of the aforementioned social movements is given ample representation, and Kaplan selects enough kinds of periodicals to display both geographic diversity and a spectrum of design choices. Within the women’s liberation movement, for example, the minimalist, hand-drawn aesthetic of New York’s Fuck You (subtitled A Magazine of the Arts) provides a striking contrast to the busy text-image combinations of Albany, California’s It Ain’t Me Babe. The youth culture of the New Left, meanwhile, can be seen in very different lights between the tripped-out, psychedelic look of San Francisco’s Oracle and the self-reflexive, modernist design of New York’s Other Scenes. Finally, in the black underground press, Emory Douglas’s bold illustrations for the San Francisco–based Black Panther newspaper find a surprising correlate in the gritty black-and-white photographs scattered throughout Detroit’s Inner-City Voice.
These and numerous other points of comparison are made possible by the sheer number of high-quality color plates Kaplan includes. Combined with the book’s oversize dimensions (10” x 12”), the 700 reproductions afford a level of detail that is as good as it gets without having access to the originals. The quality-in-scale is such that one is able to perceive and assess nuances in typography, coloring, and so on. But equally important is visible evidence of circulation, use, and wear in the materials themselves, including the mailing address labels on specific copies. A crease here, a tear there: these traces serve as indexical reminders that the countercultural press published periodicals to be handled, not simply stared at. Their inclusion in the book adds layers of cultural memory to Kaplan’s project.
Another point to note about the color plates: whether looking at or between the covers of these periodicals, Kaplan’s focus throughout the book is on the space of the page. Every plate reproduces a full cover or page in its entirety; no image is abstracted from the context in which it appears. This decision reflects not only Kaplan’s training as a graphic designer but also his commitment to emphasizing layout and composition in the making of counterculture iconography. One can see, for example, how the title page of William S. Burroughs’s “Academy 23: A Deconditioning,” from the October 1967 issue of Oracle, aims for a hallucinatory effect by juxtaposing surrealist drawings with irregularly spaced columns of text. Even more eye opening are page combinations (spreads, inserts, front and back covers) that offer dynamic, antiauthoritarian ways of reading the periodical format. Center spreads from Philadelphia’s...