Eric Gill and John Berger from Penguin

Last week saw the publication of two additions to Penguin’s series of influential texts on art, design and photography – a new collection of John Berger’s writings, Understanding a Photograph, and a new edition of Eric Gill’s An Essay on Typography from 1931

Last week saw the publication of two additions to Penguin’s series of influential texts on art, design and photography – a new collection of John Berger’s writings, Understanding a Photograph, and a new edition of Eric Gill’s An Essay on Typography from 1931…

Edited by Geoff Dyer, Understanding a Photograph brings together some of Berger’s most well-known essays on the subject and several previously unpublished pieces. Photographers whose work he examines include Nick Waplington, W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész and Sebastiao Salgado.

Other themes addressed include how images of imperialism have been conveyed via photography; the use of photo-montage in political image-making; representations of agony in photography; and, in an examination of a series of images by August Sander, an analysis of “the suit” in the photographer’s early-twentieth century portraiture.

Above: Making the letters as black as possible defeats the object of the poster, Gill wrote. The poster on the right offers more differentiation between letters and increased legibility, while still using thick text

Eric Gill’s aim with his essay was to write of the two worlds of “industrialism and that of the human workman” as he saw them in 1930, when he completed the essay, and how the crafts of typography and printing had been affected by those conditions.

“One after the other the crafts, which were formerly the workmen’s means to culture, are being mechanised more or less completely,” he wrote, “& now only such things as musical composition & painting pictures & giving lectures on the wireless, demand the actual responsible skill of the human being who does them.”

Gill offers great insight into the conditions of the day before beginning an examination of lettering, type, paper-cutting and ink, the printing press, the book, and the ‘Procrustean Bed’ (the compositor’s stick).

First published in 1931, the book went through several early editions, the most recent being David R Godine’s 1993 publication (itself hard to get hold of). Penguin Modern Classic’s new version references the design of the first edition, but does away with some of the more descriptive text (the 3rd and 4th editions were simplified further still).

First edition photo from

3rd edition on sale at abebooks, here

It is a highly readable text and contains many a line that sings. The last section of the concluding essay But Why Lettering, for example, reads like a call-to-arms. Having decried that “the business of printed lettering has now, under the spur of commercial competition, got altogether out of hand and gone mad,” Gill concludes that – “The only way to reform modern lettering is to abolish it.”

Some lines are more memorable for their phrasing, such as:

A print is properly a dent made by pressing; the history of letterpress printing has been the history of the abolition of that dent.


There are now about as many different varieties of letters as there are different kinds of fools. I myself am responsible for designing five different sorts of sans-serif letters – each one thicker and fatter than the last because every advertisement has to try and shout down its neighbour.

An Essay on Typography and Understanding a Photograph complement the other titles in the Penguin Modern Classics series published five years ago – and also designed by Yes – Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Design as Art by Bruno Munari and On Photography by Susan Sontag, the latter two shown below.

More details at

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