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Photographs in Ink

The wonder of photomechanical processes
Benjamin Levy, Guest Curator and PhD Candidate in Art History at Case Western Reserve University
September 15, 2022
Liz, 1964. Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. 1998.409

In fourth grade during career day, I vividly recall looking through a magnifying lens at a photograph on the front page of the local newspaper. I saw the image dissolve into a mesmerizing abstract field of dots. I later learned that the dots of printer ink that enabled this magical experience are part of a rich history going back over a century. It is the history of photomechanical processes: a variety of techniques that are part photography and part printmaking. Each process has distinct underlying visual fingerprints, such as patterns of dots, lines, or grids. When printed, the arrangement of ink comes together in viewers’ eyes and brains to form the photographic image.

Photographs in Ink presents two intertwined narratives: the use of photomechanical processes to widely disseminate images and their adoption by fine artists as content and aesthetic choice. The earliest examples in the exhibition showcase scientific photography. From microscopes to X-rays, new technologies combined with photography to enable visualization of the world beyond the limits of human sight. In the 1890s, astronomers Maurice Loewy and Pierre Henri Puiseux published an atlas of the moon with images taken through a telescope. The images were realized as large-scale photogravures, an etching process. This project remained the most accurate reference of the lunar landscape until the era of space travel. Because of photogravure, the results of the individual experience of looking through a powerful telescope could be collectively viewed by an audience, regardless of weather conditions. 

Photographie Lunaire: Copernic-Képler-Aristarique 1896. Maurice Loewy
Photographie Lunaire: Copernic-KéplerAristarique 1896. Maurice Loewy (French, 1833–1907) and Pierre Henri Puiseux (French, 1855–1928). Photogravure; 57 x 47.7 cm. Gift of Amy and Neil Viny, 2011.172

This exhibition illuminates how photomechanical techniques proliferated across industries and artistic movements. Beyond the images’ use for visual communication, artists were drawn to the techniques for creative expression. In the second half of the 20th century, Pop artists explored the aesthetics and tools of mass media. Andy Warhol famously utilized the halftone, the pattern of differently sized dots I saw as a child in the newspaper. Warhol used the halftone’s association with commercial printing to comment on the relationship between the image of a celebrity like Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, popular culture, and fine art. 

While the tools of mass media have transformed over the years, contemporary artists continue to use these techniques in their art. Through recent acquisitions and rarely seen works from the museum’s holdings, along with loans from several local collections, this exhibition highlights the strength and versatility of these subtle but ubiquitous processes.