Dear, Dear, what could the matter be?
Oh, Dear, what could the matter be?
Johnny's too long at the Fair."
Traditional nursery rhyme
traced back to 1780's England
Many of the customers who arrive at my Heirloom Art Studio for fine art or restoration services are deeply involved in genealogical research. They are often desperately seeking duplicates or restorations of photographic images of past generations which they, themselves, own or which they have begged, borrowed (and, believe it or not, sometimes.......stolen) from other family members.
Anyone involved in historic or genealogy research can attest that information, as well as photographs, often turn up at the oddest times and are sometimes found in the strangest places. You just never know when that one break in your research will happen. This posting is about just one of those unique (if not fortuitous) occasions for one of my clients.
The phone call to the Studio began like any other with one of the eventual questions about my services: Could I duplicate a Tintype? My immediate answer was, "Absolutely", but I was cautiously suspicious about the item because the general public is often not knowledgeable about photographic history and tends to label any photographic image appearing on metal as a Tintype.
When the customer stated her metal photograph was nailed to a three-quarter inch thick wooden block, my suspicions were becoming increasingly confirmed that she did not have a Tintype in her possession. I asked if the photograph had a black or copper base. Her answer confirmed my thoughts.
"The metal looks like copper," the lady replied "but, it's the strangest thing....when you turn the photograph sideways the image looks like a negative." Aha! This is definitely NOT a Tintype and I proceeded to explain that most likely (sight unseen) she was holding a Photogravure plate adhered to a block of wood for the purpose of printing an image most likely on a press. As to any restoration or reproduction, I instructed the woman to bring the piece into the Studio for evaluation and further discussion.
Throughout early history, books and manuscripts were mostly religious texts. These were painstakingly reproduced by hand. A picture comes to mind of selfless Monks sitting on hard benches in cold, monastic rooms, hovering over handmade papers for days on end, elegantly adding decorative touches to ornate letters in order to reproduce scripture and text.
The main method used to reproduce photographic images and textual thoughts in mass production remained, for much of history, woodblock printing. Skilled artists would carve reverse images in the surface of wood which would then be hand inked using a roller and hand pressed onto paper. This was a detailed, but still labour intensive way to create multiple images and the only way to produce a portrait image.
Around 1040, the first known movable type system for reproducing text was created out of porcelain pieces, in China, by Bi Sheng. Sheng used clay letter characters, which broke easily, but by 1298 AD, Wang Zhen had carved a more durable type from wood and developed a complex system of revolving tables and number-association with written Chinese characters that made typesetting and printing much more efficient.
Beginning in approximately 1436, Johannes Gutenberg and partner, Andreas Heilmann, owner of a paper mill, began work on the first version of the printing press. Around 1450, in Europe, Gutenberg introduced what is universally regarded as an independent invention of movable type.
Movable type is the system of printing and typography using movable pieces of metal type, made by casting from matrices struck by letter punches. Movable type allowed for much more flexible processes than hand copying or block printing. Gutenberg was the first to create his type pieces from an alloy of lead, tin and antimony – the same components still used today.
Compared to woodblock printing, movable type page setting was quicker and more durable. The metal type pieces were sturdier and the lettering more uniform, leading to standardized typography and fonts. The high quality and relatively low price of the Gutenberg Bible (1455) established the superiority of movable type and printing presses rapidly spread across Europe and later all around the world. Today, practically all movable type printing (if it is still used in this digital age) ultimately derives from Gutenberg's movable type printing press, which is often regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium.
Photogravure, however, is an intaglio printing or photo-mechanical process. A copper plate is coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue which had been exposed to a film positive. The image is then etched, resulting in a high quality plate which, when printed, can reproduce all the detail and continuous tones of a photograph.
The etched image is made up of small depressions in the surface of the printing plate. The cells are filled with ink via a roller and the excess ink is scraped off the surface of the plate with a blade. A rubber-covered roller presses paper onto the surface of the plate and into contact with the ink within the etched cells.
The earliest forms of Photogravure were developed in the 1830s by the original pioneers of photography itself, Henry Fox Talbot in England and Nicéphore Niépce in France. They were seeking a means to make prints that would not fade, by creating photographic images on plates that could then be etched. The etched plates could then be printed using a traditional printing press. These early images were among the first photographs, pre-dating daguerreotypes and the later wet-collodion photographic processes like glass Ambrotypes. Fox Talbot worked on extending the process in the 1850s and patented it in 1852 under the name "photographic engraving" and 1858 as "photoglyphic engraving".
Photogravure, in its mature form, was developed in 1878 by a Czech painter, Karel Klíč, who built on Talbot's research. This process, the one still in use today, is called the Talbot-Klič process.
It is relatively easy to identify a Photogravure print. Printed images have warm blacks which often appear soft but, register an amazing range of subtle gray shades. The unique tonal range comes from Photogravure's variable depth of etch, that is, the shadows are etched many times deeper than the highlights. Unlike half-tone processes which merely vary the size of dots to distinguish light areas from dark, the actual quantity and depth of ink wells are varied in a Photogravure plate and are often blended into a smooth tone by the printing process.
Look at the print with a good magnifying glass, and you will see a characteristic honeycomb appearance. This is caused by the grid used in the printing process to etch the plate. The dark areas will often seem pitted.
Because of its high quality and richness, Photogravure was used for both original fine art prints and for photo-reproduction of works from other media such as painting reproduction. Due to the high cost of the metal used in the process, expensive and exquisite books of art produced using this method are often referred to as Copper Plate editions.
Photogravure is distinguished from Rotogravure in that Photogravure uses a flat copper plate etched rather deeply and printed by hand, while in Rotogravure, as the name implies, a rotary cylinder is only lightly etched and it is a factory printing process for newspapers, magazines, and packaging.
Here is an odd fact: In France the correct term for Photogravure is Héliogravure, while the French term Photogravure refers to ANY photo-based etching technique.
Gravure printing is/was usually used for long, high-quality print runs such as books, magazines, mail-order catalogues, packaging, and printing onto fabric and wallpaper. It was also used for printing postage stamps.
But, what of the image in question belonging to our Studio customer? The woman from the phone call arrived at the Studio and produced her photographic plate. The image was, indeed, a Photogravure plate of copper attached to a block of wood by short, large headed nails. You can see the exact block in the photograph above. The black ink stains on the wood confirmed that it was created for printing purposes.
I provided the woman with a brief outline of the purpose and method of creating her possession, then asked if she knew the man in the portrait or how she had acquired the antiquated piece.
"Well, that's a funny story," the woman responded. "I am tracing my family history. I have been searching for a photograph of my Grandfather but couldn't find one anywhere and no one in the family seems to have one. He was a very prominent man in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I live."
"One day," she continued "I decided to check out a flea market at the local fair grounds. I was rummaging through a box of stuff in a particular person's booth and picked up this unusual item. I had no idea what it was but, it looked like a weird photograph. When I turned it over, there was my Grandfather's name!!!"
Sure enough, the woman turned over the piece for me to view and there, neatly inscribed in fancy pencil script, was the full name and address of her Grandfather. What an incredible find!
The woman simply had to purchase the block and was fortunate enough to obtain it for a mere five dollars. Had she informed the seller of what importance the piece was to her family history or if either had known what the item really was, I am certain the final purchase price would have been exceedingly more. Ignorance is sometimes bliss and I usually caution my listeners to ere on the side of the unknown when transacting any such purchase.
As for my contributing services, I provided the lady with two types of reproduction. Using traditional printing tools and methods, I inked the plate and printed a one-of-a-kind fine art Intaglio print on acid free, fine art paper suitable for framing. I then went into the darkroom and photographed the plate, produced a negative which I reversed, restored and printed in multiple enlargements for all the family members.
The final task was to approximately date the photograph and send the woman on her way to the Knoxville News-Sentinel Newspaper. The objective there would be to see what could be obtained in the morgue (the proper name for newspaper archives) in respect to any story publicized about this Grandfather who had gone missing so long ago.
Several days later the woman phoned to give me an excited report. The newspaper had located the published story about her Grandfather complete with a photograph printed from the Photogravure plate now in the family's possession. It seems that Grandfather had been presented with some award for which he displayed, in the photograph, a pin which was only vaguely discernible on the lapel of his suit. The newspaper supplied the woman with a copy of the article and photograph from their files and Grandfather's image and accolades were once again back home and proudly added to the family history.
An interesting note is that, nowadays, the Photogravure and other antiquated printing processes are undergoing something of a revival. As computer and laser technology have driven down the cost of producing the metal printing plates, these machines have opened up many interesting, innovative uses for the process of Photogravure, or photo etching as it sometimes called these days. As digital reproduction becomes more readily available to the public, fine artists and craftsmen are turning back to the specialty processes where their artwork and images are becoming highly praised, valued and sold as more exclusive fine art and decorative creations. Hmmm....what goes around, comes around, eh.
As for the moral of today's story...the next time you are digging through someone else's pile of junk you just never now what, or who, you are going to discover. It might not be Johnny who stayed too long at the fair, but who would figure your own Grandfather might follow in his footsteps only to come home more than eighty years after he disappeared. Better late than never, I believe.