Staring at the Screen: The Halftone Comes to Light

From the letterpress halftone block of the late-19th century to the digitally generated dots of today, the halftone has transformed the look of printed material. A new stage emerged with the discovery of the halftone, as it allowed tonal images to be printed with apparent directness, transparency and neutrality for the first time. In the wood engravings that had previously been used by the press, the work of translation and reproduction was clearly visible in the lines cut by craftsmen. Starting in the 1880s the halftone process erased the act of production; massive amounts of skilled, interpretive labor involved in the work of representation could be hidden behind a regular grid of dots.

Photo-relief halftone, captioned “From a Photograph,” in an 1894 trade journal profile on Meisenbach Company, a pioneering process firm.

Ellen Lupton, in her essay “Design and Production in the Mechanical Age,” acknowledges the significance of this new development in visual communication when she refers to the halftone's “radically unobtrusive mesh.” She traces the ways in which, during the early decades of the 20th-century, avant-garde designers highlighted and imitated the methods of mechanical production in a modernist celebration of the new printing technologies. Yet despite the aesthetic deployment of the halftone screen by designers at various points in the 20th century—as in punk zines of the 1970s and in the work of April Greiman and others in the '80s—the halftone has generally achieved the invisibility its makers desired.

The Mass Image: A Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London is the result of my search for the origins of this invisible, yet ubiquitous technology. As a working graphic designer, I found the importance of the halftone to modern media, and indeed the emergence of the profession of design, rather obvious—but until now not much has been written on the subject. Aside from Lupton's piece, there is only a handful of extended studies that acknowledge the halftone. Walter Benjamin's famous 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is right about the radical potential of photomechanical technologies, yet totally wrong on the techniques themselves and, more important, wrong on their tendency to destroy the aura of the artwork.

A tonal wash illustration showing the large process cameras and arc lamps used by John Swain and Son (British Printer, July 1894).

In the 1940s and '50s, the distinguished Metropolitan Museum of Art curator William Ivins Jr. wrote definitively on the halftone in How Prints Look and Prints and Visual Communication. In Ivins's neat and rational account, tonal photo-relief techniques were neutral channels of reproduction that swept aside the existing interpretive hand engraving methods because they were more detailed and more accurate. Later, the historian Neil Harris addressed the complexities of the halftone in a more nuanced way in his important 1979 essay “Iconography and Intellectual History: The Halftone Effect,” but there has, surprisingly, been little new since then.

A heavily retouched, hand-engraved halftone of a fine etcher using a camel-hair brush to apply acid to a plate (British Printer, Sept.1900).

One reason for this vacuum must be the halftone's ability to masquerade as a photograph. In the early decades of mass reproduction, captions usually proclaimed that a halftone illustration in a magazine was “from a photograph,” but nowadays the separation of media is no longer so clearly acknowledged. Some of the key theoretical texts on photography, including Roland Barthes's “Myth Today” and “The Photographic Message,” actually analyze photomechanical prints and not photographs.

It might seem that I am splitting hairs, but the photograph and the halftone are two objects with very different material qualities. Although the situation has become more complex with the arrival of the digital image, for the majority of its existence the photograph has usually been a private object created or commissioned by the viewer, or someone they know, and kept in the home. The halftone, on the other hand, detached the photographic image from its material base and from the context of its photographic production and consumption, juxtaposed it with type and with other images and multiplied it on a huge scale. The photomechanical process turned the photograph into an ephemeral everyday object, just one transient picture among many contiguous texts. These halftones were the result of the work of art directors, designers, reprographic houses and printers—a very different cast of producers than for photographs.

Carl Hentschel, director of the largest process house, in a heavily retouched, hand-engraved halftone (British Printer, Sept. 1900).

By looking at those who commissioned, produced and reproduced images, as well as those who consumed them and criticized them, the halftone comes to light. Now it is clear that the halftone was not the result of a freestanding technical apparatus; indeed, the closer one looks, the more the borders of the technology itself begin to dissolve. The final printed image required the skills of photo retouchers with airbrushes and pencils, fine etchers working with minute brushes, wood engravers clarifying and deepening the block, and much greater precision from printers. This was a much more complex and messy technology than its supposedly neutral and direct dots would suggest. Furthermore, the actions of this network of craftspeople were shaped by ideas about how images should look, existing assumptions about technologies, audience expectations and economic factors. Because technology is human-made, it is by examining the actions of people working with each other—and sometimes against each other—that the halftone can finally be discerned.