Posts Tagged ‘history’

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.

This engraved image shows how fine lines rendered in ink allow control over grayscale.
Engraving Detail
Detail from the above engraving.

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.


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As a person involved in both libraries and music, I have a great many high-stakes encounters with the digital world.  Overall, I think the tenor of the discussion about this world can be too feverish.  Digital media are neither the sky falling nor the second coming.  They are media that work well for access; that work problematically for preservation; and that uproot economies of the arts.

Regarding digital media and preservation, I often wonder what will happen in archives as more and more information is born digital, and as the pace of its creation continues to quicken.  How can we archives staff collect all the digital records of a government, or of an artist, or of a company, and reliably shepherd them through myriad instances of hardware and software obsolescence? 

Here’s an answer I’ve been trying on for size lately: we can’t.  At least, we can’t in the completist way to which we’re accustomed.  That’s not to say we won’t try.  But given finite and decreasing resources, especially in the public sector, humanities, and the arts, I can’t imagine how archives can reasonably keep up with seemingly exponential growth in digital data and ensure its availability in 50 or 100 years.  Digital data are far less stable than paper, and in our shift from paper to digital, we’ve traded relative permanence for ease of access.  Simplified, in this particular Faustian bargain, we can have everything right now, but we can’t keep it.

Surprisingly, this idea actually gives me some relief from digital anxiety, like a cease-fire in the giant Tetris game of incoming data for archives.  There’s something in it that implies a near-Buddhist acceptance of change and loss.  But if we’re to accept the idea of a patchier cultural record, then selection becomes all the more significant.  Collections managers will have to make very smart decisions about what to keep.  Records retention policies will have to reflect this reality.  And is it OK for future researchers to guide our collective cultural understanding with a more selective view of the past?

I could say much more about this and related topics, but I’ll stop here in hopes of encouraging the commentary of others.

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One interesting component of our Confederate muster roll collection is a record of the wages of Confederate soldiers.  A range of wages seems to have been available within each regiment: $11 per month for a private, $20 per month for a first sergeant, and a few intermediate salaries for lesser sergeants and corporals.

Right now, I happen to be reading Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain’s fond remembrance of his years piloting steamboats just before the Civil War.  That conflict was a death knell for the steamboating era, which was already in decline due to the technological advances of railways and tugboats.  Twain records vastly different salaries in the pre-war years: steamboat pilots made a minimum of $100 per month.  After labor organized, a few made up to $700 per month.

As an exercise, let’s equate the professional level of a Confederate Army first sergeant and a steamboat pilot.  (Respect for authority aside, perhaps these men were not completely different – both were trained specialists and mid-level professionals responsible for many people during defined tours.)  We can note that the sergeant in 1863 made anywhere from five to 35 times less than the steamboat pilot in 1860.

Hardly an auspicious beginning for a Gilded Age.

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