Unblinking Eye


RootsThe central point of William Ivins’ seminal book, Prints and Visual Communication, is the importance of exactly repeatable pictorial information. Ivins draws attention to statements made by Pliny the Elder (in the first century of the Christian era) in his Natural History, regarding works on botany. It seems that early botanists had to give up making drawings of plants for their herbals, due to the inability of copyists to reproduce them accurately—within a generation or two the drawings would cease to look anything like the real plant and would therefore become worse than useless. And, since the names of plants changed regularly from one region to another, precise descriptions of them were subject to chronic misinterpretation, so that early botanists were reduced to simply listing all the known names of the various plants in their herbals.  This meant that the dissemination of precise information could not take place via books, but only through direct transmission from a master to his pupil.  (pp. 14-15.)  Such was the situation until the renaissance of the fifteenth century.

Woodcuts were invented early in the fifteenth century, and engravings and etchings not long thereafter.  The importance of these inventions is usually overlooked in the general enthusiasm over the invention of moveable type in the mid-fifteenth century.   Ivins regards the ability to convey exactly repeatable pictorial information as equally important as the invention of moveable type.  Words were sometimes inscribed along with images on early woodcuts, which led to the production of a few books in the fifteenth century by the block printing technique, wherein the entire text of a page was cut from a block of wood.  It is probable that moveable type had to be invented to avoid the difficulties presented by block printing, though in reality a number a existing technologies, including etching, engraving, and punch and die making from silver and gold smiths, and press making from vintners, converged to enable the printing of the earliest books with moveable type. (See A History of Mechanical Inventions, chapter VIII.)

For many years woodcuts and engravings were utilized primarily for the reproduction of pious images, and as mementos of famous places, much like modern postcards.  Their first usage for the transmission of information, rather than as mere illustrations, was apparently in herbals, which began appearing in the late fifteenth century.  However, printed books, with or without illustration, remained too expensive for the masses for nearly four centuries.

By the early nineteenth century a machine had been invented that could produce continuous rolls of smooth, shiny paper, and soon thereafter a powered printing press.  By mid-century, for the first time in history, cheap illustrated technical books on almost any subject were readily available to the common man. “The result was the greatest revolution in practical thought and accomplishment that has ever been known.”  (P. 20.)  The importance of the reference to “the common man” is not to be overlooked, as both Ivins and Paul Johnson (in his book The Birth of the Modern, pp. 543ff.) point out that the great inventions of our era were not made by men educated at the universities, but by men who were self-educated or, in some cases, nearly illiterate—blacksmiths, craftsmen, mechanics and empiric engineers.  In fact, the universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, with their emphasis on classical studies, tended more to inhibit than to encourage invention.

The explosion of visual information in the nineteenth century was primarily accomplished through the medium of hand-made woodcuts and engravings, though by the end of the century photography and photolithography were beginning to supplant their forebears. Today we are so immersed in our repeatable technology, and take it so much for granted, that we remain largely ignorant of the factors which have enabled it.

We may find it enlightening to consider repeatability under the rubric “homogeneity.”  Manuscripts were by nature heterogeneous, whereas printed books are homogeneous. Consider that the Protestant concept of the bible as “the word of God” and the authoritative source of religious instruction could scarcely have existed in a manuscript culture where every copy of the “bible” was unique.  Protestantism could not have arisen prior to the existence of a homogeneous printed bible, and any reference to the bible as “scripture” in the age of typography is truly an anachronism. As McLuhan says, “The new homogeneity of the printed page seemed to inspire a subliminal faith in the validity of the printed Bible as bypassing the traditional oral authority of the Church, on the one hand, and the need for rational critical scholarship on the other.” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 176.)

Ivins points out that, prior to the advent of photography, verisimilitude was the sine qua non of art, but that photography was so far and away superior to drawing or painting for purposes of verisimilitude that many lesser artists were forced to take it up in order to make a living.  Hence, the conception of what constituted art underwent a series of transformations that are still not complete even as we near the end of the twentieth century.  For some, uniqueness of expression became what distinguished art from “mere” verisimilitude, as only one “original” of a painting, for instance, could exist. But with the acceptance of photography as art, even that has gone by the way.

The pictorialist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries adhered to the belief that art must be unique if it is to be truly “art,” and its members used every means at their disposal to distinguish their work from that of the less enterprising and more commercial photographers who merely “copied” what was before their lens. But even some of the early Photo-Secession members, while championing so-called “straight” photography, rarely made more than a single print of any negative.  Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand both apparently felt that a single “original” print was sufficient, though both were known for their fine hand-pulled photogravures.  Stieglitz even went so far as to have his wife, Georgia O’Keefe, destroy his negatives after his death, so that another hand could never print them. In more recent times, Brett Weston also destroyed virtually all his negatives before he died.

We should also note the phenomenon of limited editions.  Ivins comments: “The great discovery that a larger profit could be made from the snobbery to which a limited edition appeals is comparatively recent, and can be regarded as one of the sequelae of the pervasion of the photographic process.”  (p. 72)


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