A guest leafs through the Firestorm elegy book at the Berkeley Art Museum on Tuesday, Oct. 11. Photo: Brian Scott

Speaking about his new exhibition of photographs which opened simultaneously at the Berkeley Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California this week, Richard Misrach says it is as much a community event as an art show.

The haunting images, taken 20 years ago in the wake of the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm, document the aftermath of a disaster that touched everyone who lived or worked locally. And, now, because the photographs have never been shown before, people who lost homes — or perhaps even family members — are seeing these large scale, beautifully composed images for the first time. The impact is bound to be strong and responses are likely to be emotional.

Misrach knew he wanted to create a way for community members to articulate their reaction to the photographs and contribute to the exhibition directly. So he decided to create two handcrafted elegy books, one for each museum. Exhibition goers are encouraged to write in the books — or include photos or drawings — and the tomes will become part of the museums’ exhibition archives.

The design of the books fell to Brian Scott of San Francisco’s Boon Design, who worked with Misrach 20 years ago on his book, Bravo 20, and Berkeley bookbinder John DeMerritt. Scott and DeMerritt share a love of ledgers — the type that banks or courthouses would use in the past, or that hotels still sometimes have on display as guest books.

The elegy book’s cover is designed to look as if it has been charred, to communicate the idea of a fire. Photo: John DeMerritt
The elegy book’s cover is designed to look as if it has been charred, to communicate the idea of a fire. Photo: John DeMerritt

The paper for the book was donated by Jeff Mendelsohn at New Leaf Paper. A local company, New Leaf was keen to contribute to this commemorative event for the community.

The cover, embossed on the front with the year of the fire, 1991, is made of a heavy custom-made black linen-flax paper deliberately designed to look as if it’s been burnt. “It looks like charred roofing paper,” says Scott. “We wanted it to look like a residual artefact from ruins, someone’s belonging — to communicate the idea of fire.”

Two of Misrach’s photographs are inlaid in each book, and a title page includes raw statistics of the Firestorm transcribed in its aftermath by the Oakland Fire Department. But the bulk of the volume is given over to blank, ruled pages for community members to fill as they see fit. Entries were already running to several pages by Wednesday afternoon, the day after BAM’s preview opening.

DeMerritt, whose book bindery is in the same artists’ cooperative as Misrach’ studio in Emeryville, says he drew inspiration from 19th-century legers used for record-keeping. “The book needed to be extremely durable so we created a traditional spring-back binding with is very rigid with a rounded spine piece,” he says.

Both Scott and DeMerritt felt the responsibility of the project. “Designers don’t often get asked to collaborate on projects like this. It’s an honor to make something that’s a living artefact,” Scott says.

This article is part of our “Firestorm Special” series which is appearing on Berkeleyside in the run-up to October 20, 2011, the 20th anniversary of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm. As part of its commemoration coverage, Berkeleyside is supporting the Berkeley Art Museum and its exhibition of photographs by Berkeley photographer Richard Misrach, 1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath. A book accompanying the exhibition, “1991” (Blind Spot, $75), was published on October 15th. Read previous Firestorm Special stories.

Richard Misrach: A focus on the after-story [08.01.11]

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...