The invention of photography in 1839 brought damatic changes in visual communication. Photographs of all sorts became widely available, but the new medium had certain limitations. Its images had to be developed chemically; they could not be printed in ink for use in books; they had to be encased or mounted; and they faded. During the 1850s and 1860s a number of photomechanical processes were developed to address these problems. Collotype, perfected in the late 1860s, represents one of the first successful methods of printing photographs in permanent ink. It produces exquisite prints with subtle tonal values. It is used to reproduce works of art, as well as for scientific, technical, and commercial illustration. The delicate gelatin surface that provides collotype's special reproduction qualities also limits the life of each plate to about two thousand impressions, but the process has proved to be economical for small editions. Although collotype's importance as a photomechanical process was diminished by the development of halftone relief printing in the 1880s and by the rise of rotary gravure and offset lithography in the twentieth century, it has maintained a small share of the market for fine quality reproductions.
What is a collotype? A collotype is a photographic picture printed in ink from a gelatin-coated plate. The word comes from the Greek "kolla," meaning glue, and "typos," meaning image or form. To make a collotype plate, gelatin is mixed with potassium bichromate and spread on a metal or thick glass plate. Once dry, this coating is light-sensitive. It is exposed to light through a photographic negative. The gelatin becomes insoluble in water, or "hardens," in proportion to its exposure to light, capturing even the finest gradations of darks and lights. In the unexposed areas the gelatin remains soluble and capable of absorbing moisture. When the exposure is completed, the bichromate is washed away, and the gelatin surface is ready to print. An astringent such as alum is incorporated into the light-sensitive coating, causing the gelatin to produce a characteristic netlike pattern that is visible under magnification in the finished print. Collotype, like lithography, is based on the principle that oil and water do not mix. The image is printed in the same way as a lithograph. The plate is dampened with a solution of glycerine and water, and a greasy lithographic ink is rolled over it. The unexposed portions of the plate soak up water and then repel the greasy ink. In the exposed areas the hard, dry surface of the gelatin repels moisture but accepts the ink. Producing collotype in color requires a different plate and impression for each color, just as in other printing processes. Careful retouching of the separation negatives is necessary to assure the proper blending of colors. Color also can be added by stencil or lithography over a collotype key image printed in black. Much of the best quality color collotype printing has come from Europe, although the Viennese house of Jaffe established an American branch, and American firms made great advances in color work after World War II.
ALPHONSE POITEVIN (1819-1882), A French engineer, is considered the father of collotype and a related process, photolithography. In 1855 he patented a process whereby a light-sensitive colloid coating on a lithographic stone was exposed and printed like a lithograph. The fragile coating disintegrated, however, and peeled off the support after several impressions. In the 1860s French photographers C.M. Tessie du Motay and C.R. Marechal carried Poitevin's work further. They achieved better tonal values in their prints but never succeeded in producing sizable editions. Joseph Albert (1825-1886), a Munich photographer, perfected Poitevin's process and developed the first commercially successful collotype about 1868. He called prints made by this process Albertypes and secured American patent protection in 1869. Albert's improvement involved the use of a glass plate with two layers of gelatin. The first layer provided a base coating beneath the second, the photosensitive image carrier. With this method Albert succeeded in producing about two thousand impressions from a single plate. In 187o photographer Edward Bierstadt (1824-1906) acquired the rights to license Albert's patent in the United States. With assistance from his brother Albert, the painter, he established the Photo-Plate Printing Company in New York City to print Albertypes. Edward Bierstadt sold the New England rights to Albert's patent in 1872. The Forbes Lithograph Company of Boston acquired these rights about 1875 and used the Albertype trade name until the turn of the century. The Albertype created much interest in Europe and America, and several European collotype processes were patented in the United States during the 1870s. Differences among the various proprietary forms of collotype—such as the Albertype, the Heliotype, and the Artotype, and others—relate primarily to methods of preparing the plates. Frederick Gutekunst's Philadelphia firm, the Photo Art Printing Company, called its work Phototype. The Rockwood Photo-Engraving Company of New York used the patent of Emil Rye, a Danish chemist, and called its collotypes Heliographs. However, not every photographer or printer who produced collotypes used licensed patents. Descriptions of the process including formulas and practical working advice appeared in photographic trade journals from 1870 on. Ernest Edwards (1837-1903), a British portrait photographer, developed a collotype method he patented in England in 1869 and brought to the United States in 1872. Edwards called his process the Heliotype, and at first associated himself with James R. Osgood and Company, Boston publishers.
About 1885 he organized the New York Photogravure Company, later known as the Photogravure and Color Company. The firm produced both collotypes and photogravures. One of their better-known publications was the locomotion series of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, with plates reproduced in collotype. The Heliotype Company of Boston continued in business until about 1943.
In 1878 complicated partnership negotiations combined elements of several patents to create the Artotype Company and yet another proprietary form of collotype. The partners sold licenses and trademark rights to photographers around the country, with the provision that the rights be used only within specified geographic areas. Edward Bierstadt held the New York City area license for the Artotype process. The Artotype Company's patent trust dissolved in 1879 after only one year because of professional criticism and controversy surrounding their claims for the process and the licensing arrangements. Photographers and printers continued to produce Artotypes, however, and they patented improvements in the process through the 1880s. Edward Bierstadt used both the Albertype and Artotype trade names through the turn of the century. In 1888 Adolph Wittemann, a photographer and publisher, began doing business as the Albertype Company in New York City, by arrangement with Bierstadt. Using the collotype process, the Albertype Company produced hundreds of souvenir view books and thousands of postcards of American cities and resort areas through the 194os. Like any new technology, collotype seemed at the time to be the answer to photomechanical printing. In the 1870s and 1880s, before the development of rotary gravure printing and the halftone screen, collotype provided the fastest and cheapest continuous-tone reproductions for small editions. Despite its limited press runs and the technical difficulties of making the gelatin printing surface behave, it seemed to be the method of the future. Photogravure plates, although equal to collotype in image quality, cost more to produce and did not become competitive economically until the edition size reached several thousand. In experienced hands a collotype plate could be produced in an hour. Wood engravings took hours to cut, depending on the size and complexity of the image; large copper and steel engravings could take months to complete. Preparing a lithographic stone required the work of several individuals over at least several hours. A nineteenth-century collotype printer could produce from one to five hundred impressions in a day. A plate would last for only fifteen hundred to two thousand impressions, but it was relatively simple to make another, and duplicate plates could be prepared for larger editions. In 1881 Frederick Gutekunst offered the following range of sizes and prices for printing collotypes:
One of the primary uses of the collotype process has been to reproduce works of art, both as prints for framing and as illustrations in books and periodicals. As early as the 1870s masterpieces of painting, engraving, and sculpture could be brought into any home for less than one dollar. Publishers could reproduce art from the world's great museums for scholars and collectors. The Heliotype Company advertised that the production of its pictures "cheapened art without degrading it," making it available to wider audiences. In the twentieth century museums produced regular series of catalogues, reproductions for framing, and postcards by the collotype process. Much of this work remains unsurpassed by the products of any technology available today. The collotype's photographic realism and subtle tonal values made it ideal for the reproduction of scientific illustrations, technical literature, advertising, and trade catalogues. Collotype illustrations conveyed information directly from photographs of the objects, without the intervention of an artist whose drawing, engraving, or lithograph was only an interpretation of the real thing. They were issued as multiples, without the threat of fading or the
laborious processing and mounting necessary with photography, as collotype printers produced sheets ready to be folded and bound. Although collotype is most often regarded as a continuous-tone form of graphic reproduction, the gelatin printing plate can be prepared from a screened negative. Very fine halftone screens of four hundred lines to the inch or more were used for Aquatone and Optak, proprietary processes developed between the two world wars. Collotype also can be printed by the offset method. The image of marimba players by Triton Press shown in the exhibition was printed in offset collotype. A wide variety of applications kept collotype presses running until improvements in rotary photogravure and offset lithography made those processes more cost effective and almost as good as collotype. As finer line screens for halftone images and faster presses brought quality up and costs down, the slower and more painstaking methods of collotype no longer could compete. Moreover, with increasing use of the process and larger production runs came some reduction in quality. The turn-of-the-century postcard mania has been blamed in part for a decline in the collotype's reputation as a fine printing process—less experienced practitioners produced inferior work. Collotype required more effort in plate making and printing. It depended on skilled workers and time-consuming attention to detail. Several firms closed in the 1960s; Meriden Gravure switched completely to offset lithography in 1967. A few more hung on until the 1980s: Phogelco and the Triton Press both ceased collotype production in 1986. Today only one American company, Black Box Collotype of Chicago, produces collotypes commercially. Only a handful of European firms survive, but the Jaffe Company's American branch, the Heliochrome Press, expects to revive its collotype operations here in the near future. Collotype still represents fine quality reproduction for small editions. Moreover, artists are turning to the process as an original art form. Along with photogravure, collotype is experiencing a new beginning as a creative medium for printmakers and photographers. Their efforts testify to the skill and experience of collotype craftsmen whose work has left an impressive record covering more than a century. A mystique surrounds the process even today. Although it did not become the mainstream method of graphic reproduction, collotype was not a dead end. It advanced the progress of pictorial printing, providing an important step along the way to our present aesthetic understanding of what visual communication should be. Without the excellent standard that collotype has always represented, even for inexpensive, accessible prints, today's graphic reproduction methods might convey work of a lesser quality and we might see images in a very different way.
A word about collotype terms: Generic terms are collotype or photogelatin process. The German word is Lichtdruck; the French word is phototypie. In addition, there are specific proprietary terms or trade names such as Albertype, Artotype, Heliotype, Indotint, and Phototype. Because of the similarity in terminology, some confusion has arisen concerning names and definitions for some graphic processes. A useful source describing each process briefly and providing bibliographic references is Gavin Bridson and Geoffrey Wakeman, Printmaking and Picture Printing: A Bibliographical Guide to Artistic & Industrial Techniques in Britain 1750-1900 (Oxford: The Plough Press, and Williamsburg, Va.: The Bookpress, Ltd., 1984). For example, the Autotype is a carbon photopigment process used extensively for book illustration and art prints. However, the London-based Autotype Company also produced collotypes in the 1870s, so collotype prints bearing the name Autotype may exist and may contribute to the confusion of one process with another. The Calotype, a photographic paper negative-to-positive process was developed in 1840 by one of the pioneers of photography, England's William Henry Fox Talbot. It is known also as the Talbotype or salted-paper print. The Collagraph (or Collograph) was a nineteenth-century transfer process for reproducing writing or drawing. Today the term collograph means a printed collage: torn paper and other objects are attached to a plate, inked, and their image transferred to paper. Heliogravure is an intaglio process and is the French word for photogravure. Prints amde by heliogravure were calles Heliographs. Unfortunately the same term was used by George Rockwood for his collotype prints in the 1870s.