It surprised me to hear that dab was a printing term associated with stereotyping. I also found it strange that it would be associated with dance move, or internet meme, or drug use.

Dab entered the English language around 1300, with no known origin, both as a verb and a noun. It started as a slap, a light blow,  also used figuratively as in “poking fun” at someone. In the 18th century, it was associated with soft substances, though I suspect they weren’t talking about Brylcreem. It also meant to apply just a small amount. An obsolete sense used in typeseting meant inserting a wooden type ornament into soft metal to cast it in more durable form.

Incised printing, in some forms of engraving and photogravure, has some dynamic range in that deep channels in the plate can hold more ink and thus print darker, making them somewhat analog in that degrees of gradation are possible. Texture is given primarily through the use of patterns of stippled dots, like grains, or lines arranged in parallel a bit like grain in wood to increase the surface area which would hold ink in its recesses increasing density.

Relief printing, as in woodcut or typeset text has two states: ink or no ink. Relief printing is a digital process. A small amount of ink is dabbed or rolled on the surface of the plate; too much ink and the plate is unintelligible. Grain isn’t a factor in woodcuts, as the wood is oriented with its grain perpendicular to the impression for maximum strength and the ability to hold fine detail. Line and and stipple are also used for much the same fashion as in burin engraving on metal, but without the same sense of depth and range because of the increased saturation, rather than density, of ink.

Historically, the wood used for woodcuts comes from boxwood, the same popular topiary shrub seen everywhere today. Needless to say, there are distinct limitations to materials used in reproductive technologies. Boxwood is slow growing, and almost never reaches beyond 3-4 inches in diameter. Pieces are cut into cross grain disks of the same height as the metal type to be used, and in order to make larger illustrations, multiple pieces are carved separately and clamped together in the press. In the 19th century, this was actually useful because labor could be divided between several journeymen to make plates quickly instead of the laborious, sometimes multi-year procedures associated with burin engraving.

Carving against the grain has some disadvantages. Wood grain behaves like a cluster of straws, soaking up liquid and swelling to weaken it. Thus, stereotyping for larger production runs was a necessity, not an option. At the turn of the 18th century, though, smaller publics and lower production made the production of elegant artistic works possible, like Thomas Bewick’s A General History of the Quadropeds from 1790.

The Giraffe, or Cameleopard

Accuracy in reporting wasn’t really an issue for most early instances of visual communication. There was big money circulating in print, mostly for publishers, and a large pool of journeyman able to churn out words and images. Illustrated newspapers were a big success by the middle of the nineteenth century. But there were a variety of competitors in the race to pander to, as well as create, a public taste in visual representations. The invention of photography in 1839 did not revolutionize or overthrow existing print regimes. Photographs were often raw material for engravings, discarded after sketches or engravings from them had been created.

One of the major markets for publishers was reproductions of popular works of art. Henri Delaborde, writing in 1856, saw little future for photography as a useful tool for this:

In reproducing art, it is the inevitable inability to discriminate between what should be transcribed and what should be interpreted, that is the fatal disability which will eternally condemn photography to an industrial role that is beneath and outside the bounds of art. Photography can but parody the appearance of its subjects. Printmaking manages to seize its intimate appearance. Nowadays we are inclined to content ourselves with inanimate reproductions. Nothing more. Should this be sufficient for us? Have we lost our appreciation of art because of our sudden interest in a new discovery?

It seems odd that the lines, crosshatches, and stipples of early printing processes would be be preferred to smooth gradations of tone provided by silver or platinum grains clumped at the papers surface. There were limitations, to be sure— largely due to the lack of color processes— but interpretations of artworks were more prized than accurate reproductions. For a time, relief prints, intaglio prints, and photographs all competed for the same sector of the art market: reproductions of paintings. For news, there was simply no competition for woodcut printing. Photographs were used to provide an index to appearances, but the report was created by a committee of artisans. William Ivins identified this cultural phenomena, in his final remarks in 1953:

In a way, my whole argument about the role of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement and its syntaxes resolves itself into what, once stated, is the truism that at any given moment the accepted report of an event is of greater importance than the event, for what we think about and act upon is the symbolic report and not the concrete event itself. (180)

The market for images demanded, rather than depth and accuracy, a human interpretation of whatever event was being reported. This was slow to shift. Taste did not begin to shift until after one more revolution in print culture, lithography. It was lithography that put art in everyone’s home. The ascendency of photography was slow, and only really took off when it lost its subtle gradations as it was digitized into halftone dots.

The emphasis on the human touch in the 18th and 19th century, perhaps even into the 20th reflects real concerns about the nature of perception and the imperfections of technology. It seems entirely fitting that Bewick, the pioneering woodcut artist, used a carving of his thumbprint as a signature. Curiously, in the slang of 20th century noir, a fingerprint is a dab.

A leather dabber for distributing ink on plates

Print the Legend

Buffalo Bill’s Buffalo Pen, Scout Ranch, North Platte, NE © 2006 Jeff Ward

Legend has several meanings which have evolved over time. Initially legend simply meant story or collection of stories. It was also applied to collections of the lives of saints, so it makes sense that it became stories of a larger, more mythic significance in the 17th century. In the 19th century, it was stretched to mean popular (and probably untrue) stories. In the 20th, it was first applied to people, as in “a legend in his own time.” In the 16th century, it was associated with an explanatory caption associated with an image (such as engravings), and in the 19th, with the instructive and interpretive captions attached to photographs and maps.

Legend in the first sense blurs the distinction between myth and fact, and in the second has a more rhetorical or logical aim. One of my favorite works of scholarship on 19th century photography also serves as a primer for useful approaches to critical thinking about technology. Martha Sandweiss’s Print the Legend (2002) speaks directly to the social development of reproductive technologies:

New reproductive technologies did not immediately create new ways of understanding the world. There was, in the late nineteenth century, a gap between the technological capacity to convey certain sorts of visual information and the more conservative popular expectations for what images should look like. This is a gap that is visible at many moments of technological change, from the development of the daguerreotype to the development of digitized image banks on the World Wide Web. . . . We should probably not be too quick to scorn them for their lingering preference for traditional forms of communication, for images that fit into a comfortable frame of reference created through exposure to other pictures. (324)

The research question Sandweiss begins with is wondering why so many 19th century photographic images were held in low esteem and discarded in favor of reinterpretations of them produced through a variety of reproductive processes. The predominant form of reproduction at the time was relief printing, produced by typeset text and woodcut engravings that allowed the combination of words and images on the same printing press. Many common terms emerged from these technologies, though they have long since lost their metonymic connection. Stereotype and cliché were originally printing terms.

A stereotype was a casting of type or the combination of type and engraved woodblocks made by creating an impression in paper mâché and then pouring metal in it to facilitate consistent impressions. Cliché is the French term for the same thing, a way of avoiding shifts or uneven wear in the components of a printing plate. Exactness and repeatability are essential parts of modern communication. This characteristic was the crowning achievement of photography, according to William Ivins:

The seriousness of the role of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement in all the long development since about 1450 has escaped attention very largely because that statement has been so familiar that it has never been subjected to adequate analysis. Having been taken for granted it has been overlooked. The photograph, as of today, is the final form of that exactly repeatable pictorial statement or report. Although it has very great limitations, it has no linear syntax of its own and thus has enabled men to discover that many things of the greatest interest and importance have been distorted, obscured, and even hidden, by verbal and pictorial, i.e. symbolic, syntaxes that were too habitual to be recognized. It is unfortunate that most of the world is still unaware of this fact. (180)

There is a palpable sense of technological optimism in both Walter Benjamin and William Ivins that is commonplace. Here, Ivins speaks directly to the enlightenment claim of “demystification” common to the pursuit of science where a veil of myth and legend has obscured the truth from us. Walter Benjamin’s claims are different in that he emphasizes evolving social effects as a positive influence, enabling people to formulate their own tastes. Sandweiss quotes liberally from both, but does not make the positive evolutionary claim for the ascension of photography. Rather, she looks critically at the devaluation of photography in the nineteenth century in terms of its actual use. There is an important turn in Ivin’s vocabulary that directly impacts the evaluation: “pictorial statement or report.”

The printing terms stereotype and cliché, developed as a technology serving repeatability, have reversed in connotation to be negative terms for prejudgment by myth and mindless repetition. Photographic technology at first was prized for its uniqueness of representation: daguerreotype portraits were in a literal sense like looking in a mirror and confronting the face of the other. In the end, technological demands for reproduction transformed what might be considered “cult” objects, in Benjamin’s terms, into objects created primarily for exhibition and reproduction.

The demand of the public for images, then and now, creates a market, or better, troc (in William Baxandall’s usage), that reinforces a particular type of image. Sandweiss frames this in a remarkably useful way:

In his classic western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) director John Ford includes one of the great lines of western filmmaking. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes a fact print the legend.” The newspaper editor who utters the line understands that the interests of his readers are best served not by exposing a much-loved historical legend as a lie. Like Ford himself, he understood his audience well, understood their preference for the comfortable myth over the unsettling truth. (324)

Ultimately, legend functions in two ways simultaneously. It is both an aid to reading (as in a map’s legend, or an image caption) and a way of framing a statement or report in a way the public wants to hear. The two meanings reinforce each other and like stereotypes legends have both positive and negative connotations if we consider critically what is being repeated.


There are two fundamental ways that humans have made their marks upon the world. One is by depositing pigment on surfaces, the other is incision, carving or impressing lines and shapes into objects. One requires two dimensions, the other three or even four. An incised line can appear or seemingly disappear through the motion of light across a surface, subject to motion of the light or the observer.

An incision can be decoded in at least three ways. Is the key information on the surface, or in the depths, or both? When applied to reproductive technologies, it’s generally an either/or decision. The end product is primarily the transfer of pigment to a flat surface, so ink is applied either to the high spots (as in linocut, woodcut, or movable type) or to the depths as in intaglio printing (engraving). Paper may be embossed or ink left raised in an impression, but this is a secondary characteristic, meant more for touch rather than symbolic use. Braille is of course a notable exception to this generality. Primarily, though, symbolic exchange is usually reducible to a two dimensional domain, with a third element being syntax—the sequence which symbols occur, either in space or time.

I have been revisiting Stephen Bann’s Parallel Lines (2001) for its trenchant critique of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936-39) and William Ivins Prints and Visual Communication (1953). Bann argues that Benjamin and Ivins leapt over the cultural context of burin engraving (specifically in 19th century France) to make broad statements about reproductive technologies that are misleading at best in their effort to crown photography as the logical culmination of the search for meaningful communication in the visual realm. Ivin’s declaration that photography presented “images devoid of syntax” has always struck me as particularly ludicrous, but coming back around to these books after a decade or so has brought new thoughts.

Bann argues that photography and printmaking developed along parallel lines, with practitioners sometimes crossing between technologies for a variety of reasons. Bann’s examination is crucial to me because for a brief span, the reproduction of images and words occurred on a parallel track of a different sort: words were reproduced through movable type, a relief printing method where the raised parts of a plate are inked. Woodcuts could be reproduced in the same fashion, but engraving brought entirely new challenges. Because engravings are incised, with ink pressed into the impressed spaces, they could not be printed using the same presses. Word and image had been divorced, cut apart by technological divergence. I’m not sure they have ever reconciled.

Books using engraved plates for illustration generally group the plates in separate sections, or exist as separate volumes from typeset texts. In fact, it was possible to buy the illustrations separately and combine them with print and have them custom bound together, making each copy of a book unique. Each illustration also represented a division of labor, because the designer of the image and the artist engraving the plate might also be different people, with different aesthetic senses.

This plate, for example, was inserted into an 1811 copy of Thomas Aikenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination. The image credits are T. Stothard del (delineavit- artist) and I. Neagle sculp (sculpsit- engraver). In a direct way, this is the syntax of engraving— there are two credits, always poised on the left and right in the same places, because there are two labors involved with separate conventions. It’s convention, more than syntax, that William Ivins names as the syntax of the image. Syntax is generally defined as sequence or arrangement, but Ivin’s use of syntax points to conventions, conventions that are more recognizable as transformation or translation between the planar media of painting and drawing and the incised medium, engraving.

What makes a visual expression valuable? In Marxist terms, that would be it’s exchange value. Walter Benjamin suggests that in the arts, this amounts to exhibition value, where rather than being a small scale object viewed by the few (cult value) it becomes a reproduced object viewed by the many. Stephen Bann points instead to a concept from Michael Baxandall, troc, which is the French word for barter (1985, ch. 4). Baxandall, in a chapter delineating the relationship between Picasso and his dealers and art critics of the day, defines it as a sort of syntax for visual expression which guided the way his works were created and distributed. “Market” is not the correct term:

But it must also be said at once that the relation is much more diffuse than the economists’. In the economists’ market what the producer is compensated by is money: money goes one way, goods or services the other. But in the relation between painters and cultures the currency is much more diverse than just money: it includes such things as approval, intellectual nurture and, later, reassurance, provocation and irritation of stimulating kinds, the articulation of ideas, vernacular visual skills, friendship and — very important indeed — a history of one’s activity and a heredity, as well as sometimes money acting both as a token of some of these and a means to continuing performance. And the good exchanged for these is not so much pictures as profitable and pleasurable experience of pictures.

Without suggesting that Picasso modified his art to accommodate market conditions, it isn’t a stretch to say that he sought approval. Human marking activities are intentional, and those intentions are not strictly a personal matter—there is a social currency that motivates them, rewards them or ignores them. Reproductive print culture changes the flow of information in dramatic ways, not simply because of the loss of cult status but because of entirely new social conditions directing them. Baxandall compares painting to the work of a bridge builder, who is constrained both by the structural character of his materials and the proclivities of those who have commissioned the structure and would like to consider it “beautiful.”

The material constraints of incised artwork are many. Burin engraving, in particular, is unforgiving and laborious. Once removed, material can’t really be replaced. The division of labor between designer and etcher was a necessity, particularly later in the nineteenth century when images were valued for their news value; burin engraving was wholly unsuited to this. Acid resist etching was far more popular, particularly in England, because instead of abrading the plate it was painted or drawn upon with resist material and later etched to incise the surface. Creating texture, or indistinct lines, was challenging.

Joseph Viscomi’s landmark Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993) offers an excellent peek into the practicalities of etching and the cultural context of reproduction in the 18th and 19th centuries. Illuminated printmaking, Blake’s “infernal method,” was marshaled against the division of labor then prevalent in visual reproduction:

In Illuminated printmaking, the labor of the artist (delineavit) and engraver (sculpsit) is the same labor, occurring in the same place and at the same time. This relation conceiving and making, between invention and execution, is encouraged by the very act of drawing as opposed to tracing and/or translating designs already drawn and thus composed. (32)

Drawing directly on the plates (including lettering all the text in handwriting) was the way that Blake composed all his major works. Only one book, juvenilia published by friends, was printed using a conventional letterpress. Consequently, the conventions of drawing are crucial to understanding how/why he was obscure in his own time and largely ignored. Viscomi compares and contrasts Blake’s extant writings about drawing with selected drawing textbooks, some of which he seemed to follow and others he chafed at, as well as various developments in printmaking that sought to bring it into alignment (at least in appearance) with contemporary trends in drawing.

This is only one side of the equation of troc. The other side, that of critical reception, is beautifully illustrated by an excerpt from Blake’s letter to the Monthly Magazine (1806) in response to the harsh criticism leveled at Henry Fuseli’s depiction of Count Ugolino.

Mr. Fuseli’s Count Ugolino is the father of sons of feeling and dignity who would not sit looking in their parent’s face in the moment of his agony but would rather die in secret, while they suffer him to indulge his passionate and innocent grief, his innocent and venerable madness, and insanity, and fury, and whatever paltry critics cannot, because they dare not, look upon.

The implication that the critic simply didn’t look at Fuseli’s work. “Under pretense of fair criticism and candor, the most wretched taste ever upheld for many, very many years.” Blakes backlash against connoisseurship speaks directly to the emergent “syntax” by which visual arts were being formed and judged in the 18th and 19th centuries

The taste of English amateurs has been too much formed upon pictures imported from Flanders and Holland; consequently our countrymen are easily brow-beat on the subject of painting; and hence it is so common to hear a man say, “I am no judge of pictures:” but, O Englishmen! know that every man ought to be a judge of pictures, and every man is so who has not been connoisseured out of his senses.

A gentleman who visited me the other day, said, “I am very much surprised at the dislike that some connoisseurs shew on viewing the pictures of Mr. Fuseli; but the truth is, he is a hundred years beyond the present generation.” Though I am startled at such an assertion, I hope the contemporary taste will shorten the hundred years into as many hours; for I am sure that any person consulting his own eyes must prefer what is so supereminent; and I am as sure that any person consulting his own reputation, or the reputation of his country, will refrain from disgracing either by such ill-judged criticisms in future.

The hope that people wouldn’t be “connoisseured” out of their senses is strong in both Ivins and Benjamin; Benjamin actually suggests that the mass taste was progressing faster in motion pictures than anywhere else, with a more prodigious appetite for advanced art forms. It remains that we always judge new art using the yardstick of the old, and while some “syntax,” or circumstances for troc, disappear others appear.  Blake may have been able to overcome the division of labor in printing, but he could not change prevailing taste.

It has always been one of the primary tasks of art to create a demand whose hour of full satisfaction has not yet come. The history of every art form has critical periods in which the particular form strains after effects which can only be easily achieved with a changed technical standard that is to say, in a new art form. (Benjamin 266)

Benjamin’s sentiment, derived from Andre Breton, is much in evidence in Blake’s response. However, the conditions for communication will always be social and therefore political. Photography is not immune. There is a reason that Henry Fox Talbot called it photogenic drawing. Photography did not settle deep debates over taste, it merely complicated them.