Book: “The Printed Picture”, by Richard Benson
I have seen many of my images reproduced on a variety of mass media (editorial publishers usually send a copy), sometimes in a somewhat unsatisfactory way. I understood that the limitation of reproductions are due to the problem of having to render continuous varying tones with discrete dots of inks, and that the primary mass color printing process used to solve the problem involved halftone and offset printing, but I never knew how those techniques worked, and why they became so dominant.
In the eighties, I dabbled in darkroom work, doing both black and white and color printing which gave me some grasp of the silver processes. However, I did not know much about the long evolutionary history of those processes, how they came to be that way.
Besides my own photographic practice, I try to see many as many photographs as I can, either in exhibits or in books. This made me aware of the variety of methods that can be used to make a print, such as carbon printing, cyanotype, platinium/palladium, contact printing on azo and dye transfer. And then, there are all of the “historic” processes, such as wet-plate, who have been revived with great effect by photographers such as Sally Mann (whose new show, Proud Flesh opens today in NYC). I had a basic knowledge about all those, but never really understood the relationships between them, and why those various prints look the way they do.
Reading The Printed Picture by Richard Benson answered all those questions.
Richard Benson is possibly the most authoritative voice on printing today. A former dean of the Yale School of Art, he is a photographer exhibited in such venues as the Museum of Modern Art (NY) and the Pace McGill gallery. As a offset printing expert, he helped create reproductions of the seminal “The Work of Atget”. His personal interest in printing led him to collect many historic prints and reproductions, some of which are shown in the book.
The Printed Picture surveys the whole history of image printing processes, from the earliest books to today’s digital processes, with a particular emphasis on the photographic image and its reproduction.
Venerable process such as woodcut, engraving, etching, and lithography are first described. The attention then turns to the fundamental principles of silver-based photography, including the latent image, through an examination of daguerreotypes, early silver papers, and tintypes, before the innovation of the dry-plate that opened the door for photography to “become more like poetry than carpentry”. The problem of reproducing photography in ink is tackled next, through letterpress halftone, gravure, collotype, and then photo offset lithography. A short discussion of digital printing concludes the book. Benson has a word there to say about inkjet prints versus lightjet prints, but that would be a subject for another post.
Although I haven’t counted them, there are probably more than a hundred processes described. For each of them the ideas and mechanics are described concisely but precisely, in a one-page essay facing at least one visual example, which is enlarged so that the astonishing craftmanship of some the earlier methods can be seen. Understanding all the steps involved in some of the processes still require quite a bit of concentration, not because the description is confusing, but because those processes are so complex. One cannot help but marvel at the ingenuity used to produce something that nowadays we tend to take for granted.
What is most remarkable is that Benson manages, despite the tremendous amount of information provided, to weave threads through clear classifications that illuminate the evolution of each process through its relationship with previous processes. One example of such classification is his division of processes between relief methods (ink is laid on raised surfaces), intaglio methods ((ink is laid in depressions), and planographic methods (ink is laid on a flat surface). The evolution from stone lithography to modern offset printing, or from early engravings to rotogravure becomes clear. Color reproduction, with its unique challenges, is given a distinct thread that ends with some warnings about the limits of color management that echo my experience, and that of other experienced printers I have talked to.
Beyond the technical explanations, which are presented with the highest clarity I have seen, the book is much enriched by Benson’s musings on esthetics. Much of the book has a lively and conversational tone. The author is never afraid to tell us his personal opinion about each of the process described. For example: “Despite its occasional successes, gum bichromate is a poor process, unable to render the clear and beautiful tonalities that lie at the core of the photographic medium”. He even goes on more philosophical considerations about photography in general, and its enormous cultural and social influence, such as “The power that the photograph gets out of its assumed connection to the world from which it was made is almost always stronger than the idea of the artist who tries to alter it”.
The idea that the medium’s artistic accomplishments cannot be separated from its technological innovations was the main organizing theme of John Szarkowski’s history of photography, Photography Until Now. In turn The Printed Picture makes the point that the characteristics of a given process affect the meaning of the image reproduced by it. I’ve learned a lot from the book and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the medium.