Richard Benson’s The Printed Picture

Published in 2008 by The Museum of Modern Art in New York to accompany the exhibition of the same title that ran there from October 2008 until July 2009, Richard Benson’s The Printed Picture provides a fascinating historical overview of the various processes involved in the production of printed pictures from the Renaissance to the present: from woodcuts to early photography in silver, from etchings and engravings to silk screen prints, from the use of colour in printing to the digital processes of today if not tomorrow, and much more besides.

The book is divided into 13 chapters – six of which are devoted to photography in its myriad forms – and each chapter is subdivided into a number of sections focusing on a specific process. The chapter on early photography in silver, for instance, focuses on daguerreotypes, salted-paper prints, paper negatives, wet-plate photography, albumen prints (including stereo cards and cartes de visite), ambrotypes, tintypes, and gelatin-based printing-out paper. This is pretty technical stuff, of course, and so the glossary of terms Benson includes can come in handy. At the same time, Benson is anything but obscure: on the contrary, each process is clearly explained and illustrated.

Indeed, as can be seen from the example below, each section consists of one page of explanatory text (on the left-hand page) and one or more pictures chosen to illustrate that process (on the right-hand page). This example shows a sheet printed in Japan in the 1930s to announce the results of wrestling matches, and as in this example, the left-hand column of the left-hand page is sometimes used to highlight one or other detail. This method (1 page text, 1 page picture) has the advantage of breaking down into compact, manageable units what are otherwise long and complex historical processes involving many technological and thematic developments.

The overwhelming majority of the more than 300 beautifully reproduced pictures, some of which are either by Benson or from his collection, are not pictures “that reside in museums”, but everyday pictures taken from a wide range of sources. And this was, I think, a great decision, since it allows readers to focus on the technology, the form rather than on the picture per se, in a sense: had Benson used masterworks, then our attention would have been distracted from the actual process used to produce the pictures. This way we can focus on the actual printing method, and thus also on the picture itself.

A website accompanies the book/exhibition: the videos are drawn from a series of talks Benson gave in the museum’s galleries in May and June 2009.

Benson dedicated The Printed Picture to John Szarkowski (who was Director of Photography at MoMA from 1962 until his retirement in 1991 and who died in 2007), and in many ways Benson’s The Printed Picture and Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs: 100 Photographs from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art are very similar.

Szarkowski’s book provides a historical overview of photography from 1845 to 1968, by means of the same method and layout used by Benson: one page of text on the left to one picture on the right. Besides the method, both authors also share the same enthusiasm for their subject and are unafraid to voice the enjoyment they take in looking at pictures. While Szarkowski opens his book with such a statement – “This is a picture book, and its first purpose is to provide the material for simple delectation” – Benson concludes his: “we need to recognize that some pictures … are made for the human being to enjoy, and that they should continue to be made, to exist solely for our individual pleasure”.

You could ask yourself however whether their type of fragmentary method runs the risk of becoming too concise, perhaps even simplistic? I don’t think so. Although particular to a single photographer or even a single photograph, Szarkowski’s observations on technological developments, or composition, or subject matter, or the social impact of technical or artistic changes, for instance, are of wider use: they help readers/viewers look at photographs in general. And like Szarkowski, Benson, too, uses the particular to arrive at the general, at a way of looking at printed pictures. Rather than develop a certain argument, both authors teach us how to look.

The edition of Looking at Photographsshown here was published in 1976 by Idea Books International. The cover picture is a portrait by Alfred Stieglitz of his niece Georgia Engelhard (1921). The untitled picture of the chicken and tree shown below is by the French photographer Edouard Boubat and dates from 1951.

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