A brief diversion today, from paper conservation into printmaking and its descendents.
Those with an interest in graphic arts may realize that the ways of producing images are as varied as the ways of interpreting them. One historical method of creating book illustrations and fine art prints is engraving. In an engraving, an artist uses a fine, sharp stylus to carve tiny lines into a metal plate. To print the image, ink is spread into the carved lines and the plate is tightly squeezed onto paper, leaving a positive image of the carved-out areas on the plate. It’s often said that sculptors make excellent printmakers because of the sculptural process of creating the printing plate.
Today, I want to share an ingenious adaptation of engraving in the photographic world, in which light (or shadow) replaces ink. During Paris’ artistically rich interwar period, Russian / French engraver Alexandre Alexeieff and his American partner / wife Claire Parker invented an image production device called the pinboard. The pinboard consisted of a fine mesh pulled taut on a vertical square frame. Tiny metal pins were inserted in the interstices of the mesh, creating a dense surface of 100 pins per square centimeter (that’s right, one fragile pin per millimeter.) Light was then cast across the front of the mesh at an oblique angle. As each pin was pushed through the front of the mesh, it cast a shadow whose length could be controlled by the length of the exposed pin. One pin’s shadow created a mark equivalent to one engraved line. Just like in engraving, the size and density of the resulting lines allowed for detailed control over grayscale. A pair of artists working on both sides of the pinboard could use a variety of tools to sculpt their desired image into the dense cluster of pins, which Alexeieff described as velvet-like. A photograph taken of the resulting pinboard image would yield results much like an engraved print.
Alexeieff and Parker took their process a step farther by taking multiple, successive exposures of pinboard images to create pinboard animations. Their work was painstaking and deeply detailed; the first animation lasted eight minutes and took two years to create. Only six full pinboard animations were created in their lifetime, bookended by settings of the music of Modest Mussorgsky; their first in 1933 to the symphonic poem Night on Bald Mountain, and their last in 1972 & 1980, to the first half of Pictures at an Exhibition.
Below is an excerpt from Alexeieff and Parker’s 1963 adaptation of Gogol’s The Nose (from Facets Video.) Note that the work looks like an animated engraving. Note also that each line in each still image was generated by the shadow of one tiny pin.
Alexeieff and Parker’s pinboard is a fascinating interpretation of print concepts in the photographic world, and an example of how image production methods evolve incrementally over time. I stumbled across this amazing work by way of a chance DVD rental, a testament to the value of browsing your local library or video store rather than relying solely on the recommendations of your favorite online provider.