How to Make a Book
By Peter Ragnarsson

Many printed works can be made with routine, while others follow a more tortuous route. Hommage à Ester Helenius by Marjukka Vainio involved an exceptionally exceptional process. The graphic production of the book's repro work and the printing called for customized craftsmanship..

I became involved in the book project at the stage when the images and the format had already been chosen. Inspired by Marjukka's photographs, the author and poet Bo Carpelan had written a series of poems entitled Årets kretslop (The Year’s Circle). The preliminary layout design was by the photographer Ritva Kovalainen. There were many visions and hopes for the project.

When I first met Marjukka, her photographs were unbelievably beautiful Cibachrome exhibition prints. Reproducing the saturation of their colours in an ordinary book would have required glossy art printing paper. Hommage à Ester Helenius, however, was not to be a replica of exhibition photographs, but instead a separate work of art akin to lithography.

For the pages of the book, we chose Mohawk Superfine White Eggshell, a beautiful paper grade made in the United States. It is unpolished paper, but it provides exceptionally good printing properties for images. We decided to do the reprographic work in the spirit of the photographer Pentti Sammallahti, free of the traditional linear raster. The example for the impression sought by Marjukka was provided by the test prints that I had made with black and white aquatint-rastered images..

Subtle shifts of the darkest medium tones are an important aspect of Marjukka's works. Since it is very difficult to reproduce them on unpolished paper, we decided to print the black with two printing plates with grey and medium black tone separation respectively. The images were finished in matte varnish with added pigment. It was decided to screen-print the covers. The numbered and unrastered lithograph is an extra treat of the book.

The printing of Hommage à Ester Helenius differed from all existing standards, which meant that we needed skilled associates for the work. After a trial printing of the pages, we chose the Erikoispaino Oy printing firm of Helsinki. The covers were printed by Staffan Torhamn, with whom I had collaborated in art printing on previous occasions. Sala Tryckeri printers located near Uppsala, which printed the separate lithographs, was also a former associate of mine. In particularly demanding work, it is important for communication to function alongside the technical aspects. Throughout the work, Marjukka and I jointly approved all the stages of printing. Language was a problem with the Finnish printing firm, for none of the printers spoke Swedish. Fortunately, we were assisted by the photographer Kristoffer Albrecht, who also had experience of demanding printing work.

Reprographic work and printing

The colour separations were done analogically with a repro camera using red, green and blue gelatin filters and panchromatic half-tone film. When working with an original with a wide tonal range, I use a technique known as "camera back masking". It uses a diffusion mask to cover the light tones of the picture. When placed on the negative the mask permits up to five-fold over-exposure of dark areas.

The rastering was done with a technique known as Jemseby Hybrid that I have developed with Bo Jemseby. In this method the negative is placed in a holder to be transilluminated as in a copying machine. The image is projected onto a surface in which the graphic film is held in contact with the raster using a vacuum. The raster has to be stochastic, or random. The tonal range of the final image is created by moving or exchanging the raster and through several partial exposures. I used five different rasters (two stochastic and three aquatint rasters) and seven exposures for the separate colours of the pages. There could be up to 35 exposures for a complete image. I made three new rasters specifically for this project, two for the pages and one for the cover.

The fly-leaf of the book, with four yellow flowers and stems, is an example of self-made additional colour. The purpose here was to print the ivory tone in its own decorative pigment, thus achieving a more even result of greater beauty than with a raster. However, since the Pantone decorative pigments did not include the desired colour, I mixed it myself at the printers. The green leaves also gained additional emphasis from our own mixed colours. And since neither the gold nor copper pigment as such suited the tone of the cover paper, we adjusted the colour by mixing them.

The book was completed through our perseverance and stubbornness. Was it worth the effort? Although it feels good to be satisfied with one's work, the final praise comes if the reader is moved by it. And that can never be known beforehand…

Hommage à Ester Helenius was one of the books chosen for the Swedish Book Art (Svensk Bokkonst) awards of 1998. The prize jury noted the following in its evaluation Vainio's work is a graphic entity, a scenographic experience, a theatrical performance. Inspired by Ester Helenius, this photographer has recreated nature in her darkroom. The aquatint raster lends a romantic frisson to the images. The book is an exclusive work of printing and a closure..