Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
Like many photographers these days, I have essentially no darkroom experience. I started out shooting Kodachrome 64. Those little yellow boxes of gem-like slides appeared a week or two after being dropped off for processing, and if you told me they were developed and mounted by elves, I couldn't contradict you. The whole process seemed like magic. I was consistently disappointed by prints from my slides, however, even from "custom" labs. I started scanning and digitally printing them myself more than ten years ago—about a century in digital years. I started reading about all photographic media, from Daguerreotypes to Cibachromes, just to comprehend what was pictorially possible. I compiled a motley assortment of printing guides, books on "alternative processes," treatises on halftones and photogravure, all sorts of stuff. Each taught me a little more, yet never enough.
What I really needed was this book. Benson is a bit of a polymath, former Dean of the Yale School of Art and an expert in photographic reproduction in book form. His resumé includes the monumental four volume The Work of Atget and many of Lee Friedlander's books. The Printed Picture is an effortlessly erudite and witty survey of the entire history of pictorial printing processes, from 15th century woodcuts to the latest digital methods. Benson's organizing principle: the physical and æsthetic characteristics of a given printing method constrain and modify the meaning of the image reproduced by it. In roughly chronological order, he concisely summarizes each printing method, illustrated with reproduced examples. Most are pedestrian images chosen to illustrate the process more than the content, though some are astonishing feats of craftsmanship.
Benson's book proceeds from initial efforts at relief printing from woodcuts or metal type, where ink is applied to raised surfaces, through intaglio methods where the ink is held in engraved channels, and planographic methods like lithography where the ink is laid on a flat surface and transferred to paper. Benson describes the principles and mechanics of each printing form in enough detail to understand its relation to subsequent methods. As a result, the evolution of modern four-color offset lithographic book printing from drawing on stone with a crayon actually begins to make sense.
The author's account of the development of silver-based photography is equally clear. In just a few concise, beautifully written pages, he explains the fundamental principles of silver-halide based image capture, latent images, development and fixing, and the difference between developing-out and printing-out papers. Each early process, from Daguerreotype to albumen prints to non-silver methods (carbon, cyanotype, platinum/palladium etc.) receives the same lucid attention. I repeatedly found myself thinking, so that's how it works—and why various prints look the way they do.
From there Benson moves on to photography in ink, the rather complex story of how the silver-halide photographic image came to be reproduced in print by non-photochemical means. He identifies the primary problem: emulating the continuously varying tone of a photograph with discontinuous, discrete dots of ink. Reading Benson's admirably clear description, I was for the first time able to comprehend the basic nature of halftone reproduction, and why offset printing (rather than direct plate-to-paper) was such a breakthrough. Ever wonder exactly how a Woodburytype was made? A rotogravure? Or a collotype? This is your book. I don't think you'll find a clearer explanation of the details of duotone black and white printing or of standard offset book and magazine printing anywhere.
Benson concludes with a relatively brief discussion of digital printing, from its crudest origins to the latest inkjets. And he places the current inkjet dichotomy—matte prints on cotton rag paper versus glossy/luster prints—firmly in the context of printing history. It's analogous to the difference between a platinum print on matte paper versus a gelatin silver print, or a photogravure on soft paper versus a collotype on clay-coated stock. The æsthetic distinctions are simply another tool for us to use. Finally, Benson expresses a healthy skepticism toward "scientific" color management, noting that how the print actually looks to the educated eye always trumps any numerical measurement. Getting caught up in the minutiæ of the craft can murder the art.
This book is so deftly written that it's easy to plow through it over a weekend. It's just as useful as a resource on the shelf. Great stuff.
Those interested in more online can read this fascinating 1997 interview of Benson by John Paul Caponigro.
Featured Comment by ycl: "For those in (or about to visit) New York, a visit to the accompanying MoMA exhibition, also entitled 'The Printed Picture' and curated by Benson, is well worth a look. Although I'll probably buy the book, there's nothing like actually eyeballing the various examples of printed media in person to see the differences and similarities. And for TOP readers, particularly illuminating is the final gallery, in which Benson displays various examples of inkjet-generated prints next to their gelatin-silver (and other) equivalents—comparisons that demonstrate, without any doubt, that modern inkjet prints (created by desktop pigment-ink printers) are at least as good (at least in image quality) as prints using traditional methods.
"Also, a showing of Richard Benson's own photographs at Pace MacGill on West 57th Street just concluded a couple of weeks ago. The show touted in particular the process by which Benson produced these prints—called 'multiple impression pigment-inkjet prints,' which are generated by an inkjet printer that Benson configured to print a single image in successive stages.
"Apparently, each final print was the product of being run through a printer nine or 10 times. (I'm not exactly sure whether it was one color at a time, or some other process). The resulting images were indeed, as the press release said, 'deeply saturated and vivid.' "
Featured Comment by kman: "After reading this book review (without actually reading the book)—it sounds just like the book that many people who deal with the printing industry should read. As a commercial printer myself I can vouch for all of the color issues that photographers and designers have with color. A good explanation of how things are actually produced on an offset press and other forms of printing is always good for those who are involved in these activities/environments. It always amazes me to speak with a photographer and find out they do not know what a half-tone is, and then to watch their face light up as I give them my loupe and tell them to look at the 'little' cmyk dots. As Mastercard would say, 'priceless.' "
Featured Comment by Dan: "I've just seen the exhibition at MOMA and it is fantastic. I took the better part of an afternoon to follow it closely, and it was a great experience. I wanted to buy the book, which was on sale next to the exhibition, but the price was US$60?!? I'll definitely order it from Amazon at $37 though...."