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Photography and the Black Arts
During the 19th century, lithography’s dependence on a substrate of heavy limestone nearly doom this promising medium to oblivion. Photographic transfer was very difficult and stones could not be used on fast rotary presses while metal litho-plates were found to be too fragile for extended commercial use. Line block printing, which became its chief competitor, may have overtaken it had it not been for the invention of gelatin tissue. This innovation caused revolutionary changes in lithographic reproduction and returned it to the status of a competitive medium. It would be used to create a new generation of multi color postcards just as traditional chromolithography began to fade. Most early photolithographic techniques would be abandoned by the 1920’s but color lithography would continue to evolve into photo-offset lithography, which is still in use, and produces most of the world’s postcards today.
While the photocrom process was a unique type of photo based printing technique, it was in many ways little more than the natural evolution of chromolithography in the face of advancing technology. The process would largely ignore optical blending and continue to use many separate printing substrates to create of each tone of the same color. Just when the chromolithographic palette seemed to be narrowing, the photocrom process reversed this trend and expanded the use of color. Only now random photographic grain and speckle would replace artist drawn dots and spatter. This technique provided an outlet for the public’s fascination with photography while retaining the colorful look of chromolithographs that they were comfortable with. Although many of the postcards created were far from the truthfulness of a photograph and in the colors of nature that their catalogs boasted of, this was a winning combination that attracted a large market. While a number of companies would develop and even patent similar techniques, those who used this process were so few that variances can be examined through the products of each firm.
Photo-Chromolithograph: This postcard may have only been printed in three RGB colors but nine different sones were required to present three relative values of each hue. These subtle differenced in tonality are more noticeable in the enlargement below.
Photochromie (Vidal Process)
Photochromie: The details of the rocks on this postcard by Purger & Co. are so realistic and minute that they could have only been based on a photograph despite the coarsely printed grain. The train however is very rigid in appearance indicating it was either heavily retouched to provide more definition or completely drawn in by hand.
Photochromie: Even though areas of color on this postcard by Nenke & Ostermaier are too localized if not also too intense to look natural, the image still manages to hold a very strong photo like appearance. This is usually a clear sign that a card is based on a black & white photograph that required the additional hand of a retoucher to add color.
Photochrom Process (Aäc Process)
NOTE: Photo-chromolithographic photochroms should not be confused with photochromes used to reproduce natural color through tricolor printing.
Photochrom: Unlike the color fields in traditional chromolithography where many multiple color dots were employed to create a subtle appearance, the color fields in postcards by Photogob were made up of small markings of very similar hues. While this provided their cards with greater color intensity, it also flattened out the space in many of their compositions. The dichotomy between detailed rendering and flat color within the same image created a distinct mannered look that was typical of photochroms. This unusual contrast is evident in the two details below.
The Photochrom process begins with multiple litho-stones that are coated with a photosensitive Syrian asphaltum (bitumen) dissolved in benzene. When dry, all the stones are then all exposed to the same photo negative through contact printing. No line screens were used in any part of this process. The bitumen hardens in proportion to its exposure to light, and the unhardened areas are then washed away with solvent. At this point the retoucher removes all parts of the image not relevant to the color assigned to that stone (photo-stone) while adding in any texture that is needed. Wool daubers and fine hairbrushes were often used with touche to finely adjust the tonal balance, which required a very delicate hand. In some cases new compositional elements would be removed or drawn in. Each stone then went through a very complicated etching process, which is where most of the technique’s trade secrets lay. This manipulation of processing variables determined the nature of how and where the ink grain printed, which controlled the postcards final look. The stones were then printed in the same manner as a normal chromolithograph. At least six separate stones were required for this process, though the employment of ten to fifteen hues was more typical. The resulting images could capture a fair amount of detail with a great clarity of color even though completely broken down into small granules; but since they were based on black & white photographs, the handling of color by retouchers could render the same image either realistic or highly mannered.
Photo-Chromolithographs: While photo-chromolithographs usually have a strong photo-like continence despite their rough grain, extensive retouching can often defeat this look. Colors have been so altered on this postcard above that they not only appear unreal, they distort the pictorial space. The limited palette on the card below has produced a dull image more typical of a tinted halftone than one produced through photo-chromolithography.
In 1888 the Wezel & Nauman Fine Arts Company patented their own photocrom process in Germany a day after Orell Fussli filed their patent in Austria. From about 1890 most of their postcards were printed on artificial lithographic stones, a product of their own invention. Through the use of acid and grinding, the unusable thin remnants of true litho-stones were reduced to a pulp to which asphaltum, resin, and oil were added. This mixture was then sprayed onto a zinc plate in a fine even coating. When it had hardened, it could then be drawn upon and processed in a manner fairly typical of traditional lithography.
Photochrom: Like many firms, Orell Fussli & Co. established an office in London to help with the distribution of their products. Three tears later in 1896, the Photochrom Company took over Fussli’s London office and began publishing similar postcards after securing the exclusive English license for the Swiss Aäc process. This technique referred to as photochroms was used to produce a great number of view-cards of Europe. While they captured the same fine details as similar Swiss prints, their pallet was much softer and often reduced.
In 1896 the Photochrom Company took over Fussli’s London office established three years earlier and began publishing similar postcards after securing the exclusive English license for the Swiss photochrom process. This technique was used to produce a great number of view-cards of Europe. While they captured the same fine details as the Swiss prints their pallet was much softer and often reduced.
Photochrom: The different color grains used in the Photocrom Company’s photo-chromolithographic postcards tend to be printed in high contrast to one another within any single area. While this created less harmonious color fields it had the effect of uniting the entire composition. This effect was enhanced by using an earthly palette suitable for rendering landscape as seen in the detail below.
Phostints: The Phostint process was always being tinkered with resulting in cards with different qualities. Although the early Phostint pictured above was printed from many different stones, a more simple RGB pallet still dominates its color scheme. The card below, printed at least six years later uses much brighter hues and is generally sharper in appearance.
There have always been differences in color when any company reprinted their cards because the printing plates were remade from scratch. There was usually great latitude in color choices since these cards were made from black & white photos that were only occasionally accompanied by specific notations regarding the placement of hues. When color is nothing more than a choice, the same choice may not be made twice rendering differences in a card’s printing. Phostints became particularly known for their wild color shifts that could render two or more very different images from the same photograph. While controlled by the technical aspect of the process, the look itself has more to do with decisions made by those handling the processing. By redesigning through alterations in processing, a single photograph could yield many different images. While it was impossible to reprint a card with the same look, The Detroit Publishing Company may have exploited this situation to purposely create variations that would find a wider audience.
Phostints: Both the postcard above and the one below were made through the same Phostint process and based on the same photographic negative, yet two very different results were produced. Part of the difference is derived from a change in palette, but more importantly from the way in which each of the stones used were etched.
Phostint Details: These two details from each of the two cards further up. In the detail above we can see the use of brighter reds but contrast is also darker due to a more dense accumulation of black. In the detail below there is a much heavier use of black throughout the image in the form of a fine grain, which lowers its overall color saturation and helps to unify the image.
Phostint: Since Phostints were photo-based, it is often easy to forget how extensively retouched they were. In this crowded composition the retoucher left the background nearly flat and colorless to bring our focus to the activity up front. Despite the background’s neutral look, these tones comprise of at least three different hues.
Phostints were often referred to as the Cadillac of postcards because of the fine tonalities, details, and rich color this process was capable of creating. This reference cannot just be considered hyperbole for in an age with little color photography they were able to create images that combined the beauty of an artist’s palette with precise photographic detail. The particulars of their methods were kept such a close trade secret that when Detroit Publishing went out of business in 1932 there were only a handful who knew how to make a Phostint from start to finish. During their last days they fed their furnaces with all written documentation along with leftover cards and working proofs to provide heat for their factory, and the secret techniques they so carefully developed over the years died with them.
Phostint: Photo-chromolithographs often give the impression that they capture fine details well, but as we can see from this long detail of a Phostint above, this is only a half-truth. The image is made up of a conglomeration of small markings that are even more irregular in size and shape than found in traditional spatter techniques. Seen close up they do not give a hint of their photographic origin, but they are laid down with such fidelity that a very strong overall photographic resonance remains. This is why these marks can provide definition even without a key plate.
Photochrome Process: Memory proved faulty in the absence of documented procedure, and the new Photochrome did not match the vitality of the old Phostint. The dissimilar appearance seems to be mostly due to the different way that the ink sits on the paper.
Poly-Chrome: In this postcard from 1906 large areas of flat tones are used in a manner similar to the Swiss Aäc process but with little of its fine grain. There is much evidence of heavy retouching by hand in the darks as seen in the detail below. This helps to enhance the sharpness of the image.
Poly-Chrome: When a picture on a Poly-Chrome is broken down into just a few flat fields, its photographic base helps it retain much of its realistic appearance. Sometimes this has more to do with the choice of composition than from any changes in the manner in which it was printed. This postcard was heavily retouched with additions of small flat blots placed underneath the fine photo grain to provide the illusion of fine details that are not there. Even when true details are lacking, the mind’s ability to extrapolate is enhanced when visual information is picked up from the subtleties provided by a photo-based image.
Most Poly-Chrome postcards seem to have been published by the American News Company between 1903 and 1907, but the same trade name and logo can be found on much later cards published by other firms. These late cards however were usually produced in an entirely different technique. A few other publishers produced similar photo based postcards through screenless lithography in combination with traditional drawn techniques. Many such cards were produced in Europe, possibly from the same printing firm without any reference to technique or publisher.
Photo-Chromolithograph: This postcard published by Chisholm Brothers makes no reference to technique but it is very similar in appearance to Poly-chromes. While it uses screenless lithography to reproduce its photo-based composition in black and grey, there are also obvious signs of extensive retouching as in the addition of many hand drawn yellow dots.
Photo-Chromolithograph: While this postcard published by Hugh C. Leighton lacks the varied coloration found on many photo-chromolithographs, its texture is unmistakably makes it one. All cards in this series are characterized by a limited pallet with a dominant orange hue, which gives them a hand drawn look.
Photo-Chromolithograph: A good number of photo-chromolithograph postcards were made where there is no reference to publisher or printer as on this Russian postcard. The process however can still be identified as being a photo-chromolithograph by closely examining the clumpy details of the printed grain seen below.
Photo-Chromolithograph: While photo-chromolithographs are made up of small dots, they tend to be very irregular in shape and size and do not have the same patterning as the hand drawn dots of a chromolithograph even when placed down in a haphazard manner. In both these details above and below we can sense they are more the result of a photomechanical process, but careful observation must be made to filter out this texture from dots drawn in by the hand of retouchers.