Throughout the twentieth century, the production of books required an entire team of skilled laborers. These laborers learned their trade through long apprenticeships and hands-on application. Photographers who specialized in illustration and reproduction existed within larger production team of typesetters, platemakers, and pressmen. This golden era of applied photography (a professional trade whose craft existed before the advent of photographic academization) was a genre of images crafted for a specific end use.

By the early twentieth century, the Linotype had transformed the workflow of the printshop. Literacy rates, worldwide, soared due to the widespread availability of cheaply printed books, made possible by the ability to mass produce the written word into print. Instead of hand setting individual letters, typesetters could now produce column wide lines-of-type which could more quickly be set into the printing block. This matrix limited the addition of images to the text, which were usually printed separately and tipped-in during the binding. It was not until the development of the halftone dot that led to the increasing demand in well-detailed photography for illustration.

By midcentury, through proprietary computer systems, phototypesetting (a precursor to what became desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s), typesetting became more integrated with photography. Designers could unify text and images in a more precise way and repeatable way.

Entire layouts could be montaged in a literal cut-and-paste method, which could then be rephotographed through a photostat camera. The function and syntax of making pasteups, were hardwired into the functional logic of desktop publishing software, such as Adobe Systems’ Illustrator, followed by shortly thereafter by Photoshop.

To paraphrase Walker Evans’ comments on how the vernacular image is read, as artless as these types of photographs appear, they become a kind of art due to their lack of pretense. However, to refer to these books as vernacular would diminish the contribution of the skilled artisans who created such publications. Many of these mid-century books are high quality, and often feature unique design characteristics whose layouts are striking on re-examination.

In fact, they are quite sophisticated, and their design are as relevant today as the day they were published. In the era they were made, the means of their creation were transparent. Looking at them today, and by having a greater understanding the mechanical means by which they were crafted, we can have a greater appreciation of these these forgotten, sometimes humiliated, volumes. The graphics are of the past, but their staying power is a reminder of their freshness.

Leave a Comment