New York

“Specimens Of Photomechanical Printing From The Collection Of Samuel Wagstaff”

Grolier Club

This exhibition of specimens of photomechanical printing was not the first in this country in recent times; several years ago the Marcuse Pfeiffer Gallery mounted a show of process reproductions. But that show was neither historical nor representative. It was conceived rather as a gesture and an experiment, since the photographic market was dealing in what were actually reproductions of photographs without taking much critical or theoretical recognition of the fact. The Wagstaff exhibition, in outline at least, was a historical survey of most of the known photomechanical processes since 1840, and was probably the first such show in this country in modern times. It may even have been one of the first such exhibitions anywhere (disregarding the special exhibits of photomechanical prints that were often a feature of big 19th-century expositions), and despite the relatively private auspices under which it was shown and the absence of a catalogue, it was an immensely significant event. Coupled with a similar exhibition in Paris from tne collection of André Jammes, which preceded the Wagstaff exhibition by a few months, it marks an emerging awareness of photomechanical processes as crucial to a history of photography more complete and desegregated (the processes being confined to the back of the book, so to speak) than the one with which historians have so far provided us.

Meanwhile, the purpose of my article on photomechanical processes in the May 1983 issue of Artforum, which was originally entitled “Benjamin Reconsidered: The Work of Art After the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” was to reconsider prevailing attitudes to art in reproduction, and to “reproduction” itself, that derive from Walter Benjamin’s now much-quoted essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The coincidence of my essay with the Wagstaff show and the Jammes exhibition (it was proposed before I learned of either) marks one of those periodic convergences of taste that give new life to the idea of a zeitgeist while suggesting that determinism can’t be all bad. Nor is reproduction the sort of villain the cognoscenti have, until recently, made it out to be. According to Gene Thornton in the New York Times of May 15, 1983, the curators of an exhibition at the downtown branch of the Whitney Museum called “Phototypes: The Development of Photography in New York City” acknowledged the importance of the halftone process as generating a support system without which “the great masterpieces of an era that stretches from Lewis Hine before World War Ito Robert Frank after World War II are scarcely conceivable.”

Yet if one allows the few successfully etched daguerreotypes, which followed on the heels of the invention of the daguerreotype itself, as a primitive form of reproduction not yet entirely photomechanical, significant mechanical reproduction antedates the screened halftone by at least four decades. A photomechanical reproduction is made photographically—by making a printing plate from a surface that has been photosensitized. From this plate multiple impressions in ink can be printed quickly; better yet, they do not fade, as early photographs did. The impact of this development on illustration, pictorial journalism, and photography itself was incalculable. In a Free Evening Lecture at the South Kensington Museum in 1876, one Capt. Abney, R.E., F.R.S., discoursing on “photographic printing processes,” said, “ . . . when I say photomechanical I mean a process by which, after the exposure of a sensitive layer to light beneath a negative, prints are produced by mechanical means.” This has a nice Victorian feel for detail, but it also testifies to an awareness of photomechanical innovation more than one hundred years ago that is in marked contrast to its neglect in modern times. Actually, the development of the halftone, after a period of considerable resistance to it from the printers, illustrators, and hand engravers who were gradually displaced by it, obscured the significance of the “photomechanical revolution” that preceded it by quickly becoming so commonplace as to be taken for granted. The incunabula period of halftone ends in 1887–88.

Certain photographers did recognize the importance of the new mechanical processes, especially the one called photogravure. Important art photographers like P.H. Emerson, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Paul Strand, and especially Alfred Stieglitz employed gravure illustrations for their books and periodicals. Coburn was condescendingly proud of the quality of prints he hand-pulled himself. In her recent and splendid memoir of Stieglitz, Sue Davidson Lowe records the photographer-impresario as feeling that sometimes “the reproductions of photographs outstripped the originals in quality.” Neither William Ivins nor more recently Estelle Jussim dealt with the esthetics of reproduction in their studies of the impact of mechanical reproduction on illustration; Ivins was concerned with information, Jussim with the problem of “codes.” But as I proposed and Wagstaff’s collection makes clear, photographs in reproduction often attained a beauty all their own, something virtually apart and different from the original. Wagstaff, who curated his own exhibition, in fact mounted it as first of all an exhibition of essentially lovely images, and did not feel obligated to show every process or its variant.

Nevertheless the show was more or less chronological, labels provided useful information, the major processes were represented, and many exceedingly rare examples were on view. Wagstaff commenced with a woodblock reproduction of a photogenic drawing, 1839, and an etched daguerreotype by Hippolyte Fizeau, 1842, and concluded for all practical purposes with a specimen of the Levytype, 1889, the halftone screen perfected. In between there were examples of processes that were either impractical or quickly superceded, such as W.H. Fox Talbot’s photoglyphic engraving, probably the first truly photomechanical process, ca. 1865, Paul Pretsch’s Photogalvanographic process of the late 1850s, Alphonse Louis Poiteyin’s and Joseph Lemercier’s photolithographs, 1854–57, photogravures by Charles Negre and Edouard Baldus from the mid 1850s and by Drivet from the late 1860s, and finally more modern processes such as the woodburytype, the albertype, and the heliotype, all of which employed sensitized gelatine and which led finally to the collotype. This last was represented by an impression of Mount Fuji produced in 1905 by the Japanese photographer K. Ogawa, who made a specialty of the process.

As for the engraved halftone, it has perhaps the most complex history of all the mechanical processes, bridging the Atlantic with claims to priorities from French, German, and American inventors. One of the most interesting images in the show in this respect was the halftone printed in the United States in 1867 with the process developed by F.W. von Eggloffstein. Instead of a dot screen he used one with undulating lines; the Heliographic Engraving Company was formed to promote this one process, but the attempt failed. Examples of the Egg loffstein process are exceedingly rare and one wonders if this example, from an atlas of the period, is known generally to scholarship.

The pictorial bias of the exhibition was no accident and was part of its significance. Before he became one of the leading collectors of photography and photomechanical reproduction, Wagstaff was a general curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum and a curator of 20th-century painting and sculpture at the Detroit Institute of Arts. While one does not have to be involved in the plastic arts to “like” mechanically reproduced images, Wagstaff’s shift to the photographic and the photomechanical anticipates cognate or analogous developments in some areas of current art with a renewed sympathy for representation. It is a kind of Romantic anti-Romanticism. The combination of the general veracity of a photographic image that is at the same time a light impression grows into something whose ambiguities are both compounded and overcome by the sheer multiplicity of reproduction. Every photograph is pure truth and pure contingency; few have considered the experience of looking at a halftone as such a weighty experience. But it is one, and we need a history that accounts for it.

Sidney Tillim