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Reproducing Photographs Using Ink

The history of photography is intimately linked to that of mass production. Publishing was growing quickly even as photography did, fueled by the growth of cities and newspapers and increased literacy. Before photography, newspapers, magazines, and illustrated books used wood engravings to illustrate their articles. These engravings could be printed in the same presses, using the same methods and papers as the movable type used to print text. The images and type could therefore be printed on the same piece of paper at the same time. For photography to become practical for publishing, a way of cheaply reproducing photos in large editions had to be found. Some were skeptical that photography would ever prove important as an illustrative method. Most illustrations for newspaper articles were created by artists who had not seen the events they were rendering. If the imagination was so important in illustration, what need was there for the immediacy and "truthfulness" of a photograph?

Finding a method for mechanically reproducing photographs in large numbers proved difficult. By the late nineteenth century, several methods had been perfected that created beautiful reproductions. But these methods were not compatible with type or with mass production. This limited their usefulness for editions larger than a couple of hundred copies. An early method that was compatible with type, developed by Frenchman Charles Gillot around 1875, produced metal relief plates that could reproduce only lines and areas of solid tone.

The method that finally worked, called photoengraving, broke the continuous tones of a photograph down into patterns of black dots that were small enough to look like varying shades of gray when seen from a slight distance. Such dot patterns, called screens, can easily be seen in a newspaper photograph, but a photograph in the finest magazine or art book uses essentially the same method, although it may require a magnifying glass to see the dots. Though Fox Talbot had conceived of using a screen to reproduce photographs as early as 1853, a practical screening method was first patented in 1881 by Frederick E. Ives.

A photoengraving is made by coating a printing plate with light-sensitive emulsion. A negative is then printed on the plate through a grid, called a screen, that breaks the image into dots. The dots are made acid resistant, then the plate is put into a bath of acid. This removes areas around the dots, making the dots raised. The dots can then be inked with a roller, and printed on paper using a printing press.

By the 1890s these halftones (so called because they were composed of areas that were either black or white), were appearing in magazines and books, and some newspapers. With the edition of photographs, publications evolved, changing their layouts to emphasize the powerful realism of the new medium. Magazines began sending photographers to the scenes of wars and revolutions. The resulting photographs often did not appear until days or weeks later, but the images they brought back from conflicts like the Spanish-American war and World War I fascinated the public to a degree it is hard to imagine now that wars are broadcast live on television.

The mass production of photographic images affected more than publications. Original photographs were costly. But such images became affordable when printed by a printing press. We think nothing of getting a postcard with a photograph on it, but until the invention of photoengraving, such postcards were far more expensive. Nor did an image have to be a photograph to benefit from photoengraving. A drawing or painting, whether for an art book or an advertisement, could be photographed, then printed through a screen to create a mass-reproducible image.

Halftone reproductions quickly increased in quality, partly under pressure from magazine advertisers, who wanted their products to look good. By the time World War I began in 1914, magazine reproductions were sometimes as good as less expensive modern reproductions.

These developments expanded and changed the audience for photography. To appear in a mass-circulation magazine, a photograph had to have mass appeal. Many photographers had earned a living selling photographs and postcards of local sights. This became difficult to do once photographs of the most famous international sights and monuments became widely available.

Reproductions were not the only way large audiences could see photographs, however. Many photos were shown in the nineteenth century equivalent of the slide projector. Called the magic lantern, it was often used to illustrate lectures. Early documentary photography was often shot to accompany lectures on subjects like the condition of the poor in urban slums.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthPhotography - The Origins Of Photography, Early Photographic Processes, The Evolution Of Cameras, Early Uses Of Photography