A Printer’s Prerogative

Here is Robert Mapplethorpe’s troubling Honey. The little girl is about 18 years old now, and recently her mother testified for the defense in Cincinnati. We speak of the trial that saw a jury rule that Honey and six other Mapplethorpes were not obscene and that the city’s Contemporary Arts Center did not break the local blue laws by exhibiting them.

A few months earlier the New Art Examiner had tried to publish Honey. The Chicago-based magazine wanted to use the photograph to illustrate the article headlined “Cincinnati joins the censorship circus” in its June 1990 issue. The law didn’t step in, but the printer did. Instead of the Honey you see here, the Examiner settled for a murky substitute: a photo of Washington, D.C., artists projecting Honey onto the wall of the Corcoran Gallery, which had knuckled under to Jesse Helms and canceled a Mapplethorpe exhibit.

Beneath this picture was a caption explaining that it appeared in the Examiner “due to concerns our printer had regarding the reproduction of the original image.” The Examiner intended to identify the printer as Johnson Press of Pontiac, Illinois. But Johnson Press had no desire to be so identified, and deleted its own name.

Senior editor Allison Gamble tells us that three readers canceled their subscriptions over Honey. They complained that a magazine that crusades against censorship but lets itself be censored has lost its integrity.

Censorship? Is it censorship when God-fearing Americans stand by their values? Johnson Press began printing the Examiner in early 1988. Before the deal was struck, Gene Johnson Jr., president of the firm, met with publisher Derek Guthrie in Guthrie’s office in Washington. Guthrie says Johnson agreed to publish anything, so long as it was art. “He said, ‘I don’t print pornography.’ I said, ‘Listen, we’re not pornographers. We will never give you any work that isn’t already in the public domain. It’s either in art galleries or museums, and therefore you should have no problem with this.'”

They were talking past each other. Former editor Jean Fulton recalls that soon after Johnson Press took over, the Examiner’s art director visited Pontiac. “He said it made him nervous. A lot of the workers had Christian paraphernalia on the walls of their work spaces.” It turned out that Pontiac lay in “Bible Belt country.”

Trouble came quickly. The November ’88 issue carried an essay on art and pornography–and one of the illustrations was to be Lynda Benglis’s notorious 1972 photograph of herself. It was a publicity shot that showed Benglis–to quote the article–“prancing in the buff and sporting an enormous dildo.”

Johnson called Guthrie. “He told me he had problems with some of the work force who were fundamentalist Christians. If the word got around in that community that he was doing pornography–whether it was pornography or not–if the word got around, competitors would take advantage of the situation.”

Johnson had Guthrie over a barrel. Guthrie recalls Johnson telling him that unless he pulled the Benglis photo he would have three months–an impossibly short time–to find another printer. Guthrie wanted to run a statement explaining why the photo wasn’t there. Johnson didn’t like that idea either.

Guthrie refused to change the layout. The November ’88 issue appeared with an empty white rectangle on page 23.

“As you know,” Johnson wrote Guthrie, “certain of the photographic reproductions which were submitted for printing . . . were deemed by us to have the possibility of being offensive to members of our work force and the residents of the community in which we conduct our business . . . ”

Guthrie hired a printer’s rep to start searching for another printer.

The April ’89 Examiner made mention of an incident in Chicago. A photograph by Joe Ziolkowski of two embracing male nudes dangling from ropes had briefly been part of an exhibit in a LaSalle Street lobby; when the building’s owners objected, the photo was covered up. The photo couldn’t be seen in the Examiner either. Johnson Press didn’t approve of it.

Far more often, Gene Johnson did not object when he might have. The Examiner even managed to put Andres Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ on the cover of one issue. (“He didn’t understand it,” says Guthrie.) Nor did Johnson hound the magazine over its chronically delinquent bills. But Guthrie, of course, wanted carte blanche. With Honey, his relationship with Johnson Press became intolerable.

Guthrie told us that he and Johnson “had long philosophical discussions” over Honey. “He got very upset about Honey. It was very genuine. He said, ‘That poor little girl–she’ll never be able to have a proper life having been exposed like that!’ The poor man was speaking from a downstate cultural world.”

In late October the Examiner finally notified Johnson that he had lost their business. “The integrity of our publication,” said the letter, “has been called into question.”

At this point we telephoned Johnson, hoping for his reflections on the aesthetic gulf between the avant-garde and Livingston County. But his mind was not on art; it was on debt. The Examiner, by its own reckoning, owes Johnson Press about $35,000.

This is a sum that Allison Gamble tells us she means to pay off as best she can, little by little over the months ahead. The kiss-off note, however, did not even mention money, and Johnson reacted by calling a lawyer. So instead of grass-roots morality from Gene Johnson, we had to settle for saber rattling from Jenner & Block’s Jefferey Elegant. “This has nothing to do with whether pictures would be published or not published,” he told us. “If they’re creating an issue to get out of paying a bill, I’m sure that will come out in litigation.”

Guthrie had been right in fearing the search for a new printer would not be a quick one. It lasted almost two years. The other printers in the Examiner’s price range turned out to be just as squeamish as Johnson Press.

“We were all very surprised when the printer’s rep couldn’t find anyone,” says Gamble. “He basically gave up. And it became increasingly clear that we weren’t going to be able to get a blanket statement that we could print anything we wanted.

“Given our quality and pricing requirements, and given the fact we are a small run [9,000 copies] for an offset press, generally the people we are dealing with are smaller, family-run presses located in rural areas.”

In the absence of Guthrie, who recently went on leave because of illness, Gamble led the search. She put together something she called her X Portfolio; Honey was in there, along with the Benglis and the Ziolkowski and one or two other provocative images. The X Portfolio was the acid test. And when Dan Grubb, vice president for sales of Ovid Bell, a family-run press Gamble had located in Fulton, Missouri, came to Chicago to negotiate, she showed it to him.

Grubb didn’t bat an eye at Honey, but he said there would have been problems with the Benglis and the Ziolkowski. He took them back to Fulton, showed them to the owners, and told Gamble that Ovid Bell wouldn’t have printed them either. On the other hand, Ovid Bell would accept responsibility for what it banned.

“Their problem was finding a printer who would even print the disclaimer,” Grubb told us. “[But] that’s a statement of fact.”

Thus ended the Examiner’s expedition through the nation’s rural psyche, with this modicum of added latitude to show for it.

“Our hesitation in printing some of the pieces,” Grubb told us, “is not in acting in any role of censorship but in offending the sensibilities of our employees–insomuch as they might quit, and we’re not in an abundant labor pool.” Even if workers didn’t quit, “their feelings about the company would change,” Grubb explained. “It’s just not worth that kind of a risk.”

Fulton is a town of 11,000 in the middle of Missouri. “We’re in the Bible Belt,” Grubb informed us.

Chain of Woes

You might not think of journalists as superstitious, but for months now a chain letter has been flourishing among the media of America. Last week we received two copies in two days. Since leaving the desk of Shelby Coffey, editor of the Los Angeles Times, last July, the copies had traveled entirely different routes. And Coffey did not start the chain.

We know this because each new link in the chain is asked to add his or her cover letter to all the previous cover letters, make copies of the lot, and send the entire packet on to five new individuals. Do this promptly, and “you will receive good luck in four days.”

As always, “the one who breaks the chain will have bad luck.” We can tell you that the chain was not broken by Coffey (“How can it hurt?”), Ben Bradlee (“A man will do anything out of fear”), Pierre Salinger (“I am getting too old to take a chance of breaking the chain”), or James Fallows (“Who can sneer at good luck?”), nor by many, many others.

Nobody’s sneering at good luck just now. Especially not newspapermen.

From an executive editor: “Superstition is the religion of feeble minds.’ That’s true, but then Edmund Burke probably never had to face tightening of the budget.”

From a president: “I need all the luck I can get. The flash report is due in four days.”

From another president: “Sorry folks, did you see my period-seven numbers? We all can use a little luck right about now.”

Gannett executives sounded especially anxious. “Don’t send luck. Send revenue and presses!” jotted one publisher. “Call me superstitious! Call me desperate!” wrote another. “But since this one promises good luck, it’s worth a shot. God knows, it can’t hurt.”

A Gannett group president explained, “I’m no fool. Not me. I’m in for whatever good luck I can get. My budget is due tomorrow.”

And a Copley executive who sent the chain letter on to five Copley publishers advised them, “I’m not really superstitious. However, neither do I want to pass up any chances for getting rid of business doldrums in your area!”

A chain letter’s usual promise is that your name will rise to the top of the list, whereupon cash or postcards will pour in from all over the world. Maybe this one should have paid off in quarter-page ads.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Mapplethorpe.