A New Printing Press

First Newspaper Image Using Halftone Printing

Stephen Hogan's 'A Scene from Shantytown, New York' printed in the New York Daily Graphic.

The introduction of lower quality reproductions for newspapers and magazine periodicals expanded the museum audience like never before. In addition to projections, the introduction of photography accelerated a need to easily, quickly, and cheaply print the images without mounting or inserts. Specifically, the use of photography in the printing process aided in printing accurate reproductive images without the intervention of the artist or interpretation of an engraver. Several different methods were simultaneously used at the turn of the 19th century—primarily the collotype and halftone with iterations of the latter still in use today, especially in newsprint. Collotype, which came into use just prior to halftone, was critical as “it was the field of art production…[in which it] reached its apogee. Works from numerous art collections were reproduced in collotype, providing scholars with access to collections from around the world” (Wright, 2004). What was equally promising for the masses was that mechanical reproduction techniques such as collotype, and eventually halftone, maintained “high fidelity to the original within the price range of the average person” (Wright, 2004). As methods of communication continue to evolve and expand, the public became increasingly interested in sharing more information about a wider range of topics. Lower classes in particular now had more access to cultural information previously reserved for the educated elite. Boston publisher J.R. Osgood remarked on the 1870s in general, “The last decade has developed with amazing rapidity in our country an interest in and intelligent appreciation of art; and it is in extending that interest and quickening that appreciation that [mechanical reproduction], rightly directed, may play an important part” (Wright, 2004). This amplified interest, however also posed a broader platform for criticism of reproductions and the social status of fine art. As the prevalence of these advanced technologies produced more and more images for the contemporary masses, critics debated whether “the widespread availability of photomechanical exactitude enfranchised all in a new visual culture, thereby increasing social value, or whether its success somehow diminished the precious aura of the original and the personal understanding of art” (Wright, 2004). Nevertheless, printing techniques continued to evolve to serve the public and disseminate information like never before.

Halftone printing became the most ubiquitous technique for fast, cheap, and reasonably accurate printing. Unlike other types of image printing, halftone was developed to closely align with the plate process for printing text in the hopes that images and text could more easily be printed together. The process consists of breaking down a continually tonal photography into a series of small dots of varying size and density such that when printed again the eye and brain will be able to blend the dots back together into a tonally analogous reproduction of the original. The process got its name from the early process of breaking dots in half again and again through a screen that filtered light to formulate the specific pattern for an image (Herron, 2008). With the first halftone image being printed in 1880, the process rapidly gained popularity and iterations are still ubiquitously used today.

While halftone printing certainly allowed for a proliferation of periodicals showcasing fine art to a wider audience, the cultural and curatorial implications of this new practice impacted the understanding of the art being presented and the manner in which it was done. In his article “Difference and Competition: The Imitation and Reproduction of Fine Art in a Nineteenth-Century Illustrated Weekly News Magazine”, Tom Gretton analyzes the weekly illustrated periodical, specifically Le Monde Illustré, as an outlet for image reproduction. He identifies a major difference between viewing an object and an image of an object in a periodical, “when we look at a single painting or drawing, it is in some sense fully present to us, but when we look at even a single issue of an illustrated periodical we do so one opening at a time, always aware of the relations of sequence… [Therefore,] we may indeed choose to let some significant part of the object remain unrevealed to us, an option which is denied us in front of a painting” (Gretton, 2000). The idea of sequence is handled rather differently between periodicals and museum galleries, however that distinction can still fulfill a cultural void, especially for those interested in art appreciation, but less inclined to regularly visit a museum. Periodic journals “found ways of rewarding the activities of lookers rather than readers, and of promoting playful, rather than purposeful, encounters” with the plethora of images and accompanying scholarship they provided (Gretton, 2000). The halftone printing technology helped this mode of seeing become a standard and complimentary mode of cultural consumption. 

The Kodak

Eastman Kodak Company's Kodak Camera.

Kodachrome 35mm slides

Color separation from layers of emulsion in color film. 

CMYK Offset Printing

Detail of a CMYK printed image

While halftone printing certainly allowed for a proliferation of periodicals showcasing fine art to a wider audience, the cultural and curatorial implications of this new practice impacted the understanding of the art being presented and the manner in which it was done. In his article “Difference and Competition: The Imitation and Reproduction of Fine Art in a Nineteenth-Century Illustrated Weekly News Magazine”, Tom Gretton analyzes the weekly illustrated periodical, specifically Le Monde Illustré, as an outlet for image reproduction. He identifies a major difference between viewing an object and an image of an object in a periodical, “when we look at a single painting or drawing, it is in some sense fully present to us, but when we look at even a single issue of an illustrated periodical we do so one opening at a time, always aware of the relations of sequence… [Therefore,] we may indeed choose to let some significant part of the object remain unrevealed to us, an option which is denied us in front of a painting” (Gretton, 2000). The idea of sequence is handled rather differently between periodicals and museum galleries, however that distinction can still fulfill a cultural void, especially for those interested in art appreciation, but less inclined to regularly visit a museum. Periodic journals “found ways of rewarding the activities of lookers rather than readers, and of promoting playful, rather than purposeful, encounters” with the plethora of images and accompanying scholarship they provided (Gretton, 2000). The halftone printing technology helped this mode of seeing become a standard and complimentary mode of cultural consumption. 

What came next was the incorporation of color, another crucial step in realizing the potential of this mode of art appreciation. As halftone printing and the periodical format continued to develop and expand, the Kodak camera and Kodachrome color film entered the market. The earliest method of sharing these new color images was through projection, however there also needed to be a method to be able to print color images and insert them alongside text, just like halftone images. The halftone printing screen process from a black and white image only separated intensity of light, not color, though the logic of halftone process did eventually serve as a model for the CMYK color printing process. Just like halftone printing, CMYK printing breaks an image down into dots of varying sizes—and now varying colors—to be printed in order and then recombined by the human eye. Taking the additive RGB color data from the color film and putting it through a process called color separation, the colors are then convert that into a subtractive CMYK color data set that can then be printed (Molla, 1988). The possibilities that come with color printings are enormous for a fine art museum, especially with publications. Art history books and exhibition catalogues could become a richer presentation of the works in relation to the descriptive and analytical text. And as the ubiquity of color images grew, especially in magazines and other periodicals, there are of course some constraints and limitations. The biggest constraint being money and the limitation on the proper reproduction of the work is related to the scale of the images. These interrelated issues are especially defined in print publications. Budget constraints limit the size and quantity of color images resulting in some juxtaposed images being a misrepresentation of the actual difference in physical scale or symbolic significant (Levenson, 1998). In these cases, the visual representations are more reliant on the accompanying literature to correctly contextualize the works.

Digital Photography

Digital Photography in the galleries to capture works of art and exhibition displays.

Founding of Art Resource

Art Resource, a fine art image repository.

Despite CMYK’s early success with processing color transparencies for printing, it was the invention of digital photography that allowed color to be electronically separated, manipulated on a computer, and printed at an even higher quality. The origin of digital photography is in a science laboratory where researchers were experimenting with a method of storing image data of outer space to later be read and reconstructed by a computer system. The main functionality of digital photography is a CCD sensor and a color filter array, both of which work together to capture light and color data for Red, Green, and Blue light waves (RGB) to convert it into electrical signals. This duo of technology has become standard across all digital cameras. The significance of digital photography from a scientific perspective is undeniable. The binary code embedded into the technology makes it standard across computers and manipulations becomes easier. How then, does this compare to analog photography both from an artistic perspective and as a source of data accumulation? Unlike analog photography, digital photography is made up of a series of square pixels, which can each be manipulated individually. While data distortion was certainly possible with analog photography, especially in the development phases, digital alteration somehow has a different connotation. In her research on the comparisons of digital and analog modes of reproduction, Diana Hulick remarks, “in reality, the ethical or objective importance of any image enhancement is dependent on what the viewer needs to know and what consequences the information might have. The greater the importance of a subject, the higher our standards of verifiability” (Hulick, 1990). With regards to museum reproductions, one would expect the quality of the digital image to more closely match that of the work itself. And with digital photography coming after significant advances in color photography, the accuracy of the color is essential to the success of the new medium. The scientific nature of both analog and digital photography lend themselves to being accepted as true representations. As Hulick continued, “photography’s scientific origins have made the communication of information a relevant criterion by which to organize the meaning of a photograph” (Hulick, 1990). She is alluding to the simultaneous role of the photography—a medium that carries ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’. Back to the original debate over the validity of reproductions, we can ask, can both of these factors truly be simultaneous? That is often a fundamental question that will always have two opposing sides, however with the advancement of color photography and the subsequent modes of representation that come from this digital breakthrough, it is clear that museums are striving to find a balance between truth and meaning in their photographic records of their collections by continuing to contextualize both the content of the image and its physical placement in print and eventually online.

            Now that digital photographs could be saved as files to be continuous re-printed, having access to these high quality digital files was crucial to the success of an exhibition or collection publication and even independent scholarly articles that envisioned incorporated images. This gap of available imagery became a moment of opportunity for Dr. Theodore Feder, the founder of Art Resource, a company with a repository of fine art digital images for use by independent scholars and publishers (Art Resource). A platform such as Art Resource also truly breaks the barriers between collections. While the images available on the repository are at the discretion of the partnering institution, the total availability transcends institutional divides and allows scholars to make connections between works that have never been hung together.