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  • Examining <i>The Printed Picture</i>

    Our methods for reproducing images are in a state of tremendous upheaval. Today, an overwhelming amount of pictures are reproduced using digital techniques, leading to what has been called both “the digital revolution” and “the end of film.” This change has been taking place over the course of at least the last two decades, and by now it is nearly complete. But this is not the first radical change in the method for reproducing images: There have been many such revolutionary periods, including the change from hand-replication of images, such as woodcuts and engraving; through photomechanical methods, which include letterpress, offset and various intaglio technologies; to non-analog systems for interpreting and replicating images. While we may feel that today's digital revolution is the most dramatic of all changes, it could certainly be argued that the introduction of photomechanical reproduction methods was even more revolutionary.

    The Printed Picture, published by The Museum of Modern Art. Exhibition on view through July 13.

    Each of these new technologies has several subsets, such as daguerreotype and tintype for early photographs; collotype and gravure under the general heading of intaglio; and Iris, laser and inkjet in the category of digital technologies. It can all be rather daunting, and, with the rapid conversion to newer methods, there is the possibility that knowledge of the earlier techniques might be lost. Since many of the technologies for printing images—from salted-paper platinum prints to duotone offset to digital laser prints—have been practiced for the last half century or so, there are some people around today who have themselves actually worked in a wide assortment of these techniques. Perhaps no one has more experience in the various methods of reproducing images than Richard Benson. Benson is a fine-art photographer, who has created prints on hand-coated paper, as well as from various film media and images generated digitally on state-of-the-art equipment.

    In the 1960s Benson was a cameraman at the world-famous Meriden Gravure Company, producing camera halftone film for duotones, tritones and color reproduction. As an extension of this technology Benson spent years printing reproductions on his own offset press of the Gilman Paper Company's collection of fine art photography, resulting in a monumental volume that is probably one of the finest examples of the printer's art since Gutenberg first worked on practical methods for replication of texts. While at Meriden Benson was able to see the final days of high-quality collotype printing, a now-obsolete gelatin plate intaglio printing process, which wound down at Meriden in 1967. Afterwards he went on to work on the Gilman Paper Photography Collection book and various other printing projects, as well as teaching and becoming the dean of the Yale School of Art. His teaching experience has helped greatly in making The Printed Picture an interesting, informative and understandable account of a very complex topic.

    The Arcade, Providence, Rhode Island, chromolithograph and detail (below), photographer unknown, c. 1895 (print: 1906).

    The book is divided into 13 sections, arranged in mostly chronological order, from relief (and earlier) to digital, with each category itself divided into several sub-categories. The sections are logically identified by a simple decimal numbering system, ranging from 1.1 to 13.8, which helps to organize the subjects in an easily accessible and referenced way. Almost every segment consists of a single double-page spread, with explanatory text on the left and a large representative image showing the method in use on the right. Smaller reference figures are printed in the ample left margin, or sometimes on the right-hand page. A few sections are allotted a second spread, if the topic requires further explanation or is particularly pertinent. There is a brief glossary at the end, but the text is so complete and well organized that I found myself not needing the definitions supplied there. (Still, it is a useful tool for quick reference.)

    Through almost three hundred pages of such examples and their accompanying explanations one can gain knowledge of all the methods ever developed for reproducing images. This sounds like an extremely large and complex subject, and indeed it is, but surprisingly Benson has made an imminently readable—and I dare say even enjoyable—book of it. Due to his personal experience in printing images by many of the methods he describes, Benson can give first-hand accounts and occasional anecdotes about many of the techniques used. His years of teaching show in the methodic and easily understood language used for the descriptions. In addition, there is a good bit of “color” and even humor in the writing: Who can resist a book in which dye-transfer color prints are compared to a screen siren's allure? “Dye transfer prints were expensive and rare, and could be as bad as anything else. When they did their job well they were, like Marilyn Monroe, better than anything else around.” He also tells of his memories of his “grade school's first Xerox—we took great pleasure in scanning unmentionable body parts.” Then there is Benson's relating of his own personal experience at a shop in the waning days of collotype printing: “On my first visit to the company I was given a tour of the shop, and my guide, the ancient owner of the plant, let me know that it had long since been accepted that collotype could only be practiced by workers of Teutonic extraction. (I'm not kidding about this belief—the three pressmen were named Allendorf, Zande, and Brecklin).”

    Unlike many modern authors, Benson is not shy about expressing his opinions, and due to his vast knowledge and experience such subjectivity would be difficult to dispute. He also does not shy away from the occasional personal story, which can illuminate a particular point while adding some flavor to what is essentially a rather technical subject. He shows pictures of his wife on their wedding day, staged at the elegant Bacharach Studios, in two versions: a stern one, as Benson tells us is her true nature, along with a joyful smiling shot, which we are told is not the real Mrs. Benson. On the facing page is a picture taken in the same studio decades earlier, showing Mrs. Benson's mother with a similar stern expression.

    I have often felt as Benson does about color printing: “It's a wonder that it works at all.” He also reveals that, due to the fact that press proofs for duotones or tritones were often too expensive, printers had to proceed without them (“most two- or three-color printing was done with a nerve-racking mixture of terror and faith that the whole thing would turn out right in the end”). Such candid statements give a lively flavor to The Printed Picture, while helping to inform the novice or uninitiated designer about the travails of the printer. All of this makes for a book that is useful to both the novice and the professional.

     

    Tanya Donnelly and Richard Benson, gelatin silver print with stochastic screening and detail (at right), by Richard Benson, 1989 (print: 1994).

    One can quibble with a few inaccurate statements made by Benson, especially in regard to the earlier processes such as letterpress printing, which would be less familiar to him. Surely, it is an overstatement to say that “the system [of combining metal type in the same form as woodblock cuts] could never work once the presses ran at any sort of speed.” Indeed, two spreads in The Printed Picture show woodblocks locked up with type for printing on fast rotary presses in the late 19th century. However, no letterpress printer hesitated too much in locking up type metal with woodblocks, especially on horizontal handpresses or flatbed cylinder presses, which did not require as tight a lockup as later vertical platen presses. Even more questionable is the inclusion of a calligraphic manuscript page in the relief printing section—surely there is nothing “relief” about pen writing with ink on vellum. Yet the inclusion of a calligraphic manuscript, as well as cave paintings, sets the stage in an intriguing way for the reproductive processes to come.

    In the first page on letterpress printing Benson substitutes the word 'mold' for 'matrix'; they are two different items to a type caster (“punches struck the type mold”—actually, they struck matrices which were then placed in a mold). The use of counterpunches was not as prevalent as he implies (“the stems and curves for different letters were often made with the same punch, ” which would be a counterpunch, and they were seldom used in manufacturing a complete font; sometimes not at all). I also disagree with Benson's assertion regarding accurate letterpress register: “Even at its best, however, letterpress never achieved the accuracy of photo offset lithography.” I would contend that, at its best, letterpress registration was almost perfect. I know of two letterpress printers who told me of having a small piece of metal type break during a press run, and then running the sheet through again, overprinting the defective letter. The register throughout the run was so perfect that no one ever noticed. Of course such accuracy was less common in letterpress than with today's highly accurate offset machines, but at its best the registration of a well-run Heidelberg letterpress could be as near perfect as possible. The description of the Monotype casting machine “rapidly creating molds for individual letters that could be cast” is misleading; the molds were not created; a reusable set of matrices was positioned over an adjustable mold to cast, or create, new individual letters. No Monotype caster created molds, or even matrices.

    And one could not say in truth that offset “would completely kill letterpress within a couple of decades . . . following World War II.” “Completely” is an absolute word, and yet today—more than 60 years after the end of World War II—letterpress shops such as the Arion Press, Digital Letterpress and The Press of the Bixlers, all in the United States, as well as the Whittington, Old Stile and Incline presses in England, among dozens (if not hundreds) of others, are alive and well.

     

    Alisa Benson, inkjet print and detail (at right), by Richard Benson, 2004.

    An interesting subtext to the book is the involvement of the Benson family in the handwork-arts for at least three generations. Richard Benson's father was John Howard Benson, an important calligrapher and letter-cutter, who created, among numerous other works, the lettering cut in stone over the entrance to the Grace Rainey Rogers auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. Though not credited, one of the earliest illustrations in The Printed Picture is of the elder Benson's calligraphic rendering from the 1950s of his translation of Ludovico Arrighi's 1522 writing manual, L'Operina. Richard Benson's brother and nephew, John E. Benson and Nicholas Benson, have continued the work of their father's shop. Christopher and Daniel Benson appear in the book through various artworks. Richard Benson's wife and daughters are the subject of several pictures used to illustrate photographic techniques, which brings an immediacy to the material, with Benson showing us family snapshots to make a point, lending a “you are there” feeling.

    Benson was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” in recognition of his contribution to the art of the printed picture. His photographic artwork is in the collection of many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Books for which he has worked on reproductions grace virtually every good art library.

    There has not been such a comprehensive, informed, yet enjoyable book on the graphic arts for decades. Anyone with the slightest connection to the subject—and who has not taken a “snapshot” or printed an image on their desktop device?—would benefit from the greater understanding this book will give them of the development of the processes they use, perhaps without any thought of the complex and extremely variable process they are taking part in. This thorough and accessible text is destined to become the standard work on the subject for some time.

    All images courtesy Richard Benson © 2008 The Museum of Modern Art 

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