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Thursday, September 13, 2007

  Putting the photo in photocopiers. I went to architecture school before the advent of home desktop scanners, small office fax machines, or even consumer digital cameras. (That sounds strange, doesn't it? It's like being born before the invention of the car. I have known many people who were born before cars were invented, and even my own parents grew up before cars were common, - my maternal grandmother scandalized her neighborhood by driving, which wasn't considered appropriate for women at the time, for half-baked reasons now forgotten - but this is increasingly difficult for people born after the CD player was invented to imagine.) I prepared all of my drawings by hand, using pencils or technical pens filled with ink. I used both modern and antique substrates, from plain papers, to 100% cotton vellums, to polyester mylars, but everything I made came from my hands, using simple hand tools. I was especially good using ink on mylar: I was told many times, as a high compliment, that my work looked like it had been generated by a computer. (At the time, that would have meant that a pen plotter would have output it. The pen plotter is one of the geeky-coolest output devices ever. Remind me to gush about its elegance and beauty some time.)

I took a Computer Aided Drafting class in college, but the software was cumbersome and rather silly at the time, and seemed rather limited, even in the areas where it should have been strong, such as for drafting complex curves.

The same held true when I worked in an architecture firm in the 1980s: we did most things by hand. Certain very large drawings went to our CADD department for input and output, but the CADD department was just two people, and they were kind of like... typists if you think back to when typing was considered a technical specialty, but far more modern. (I had friends who dropped out of architecture school to instead get a certificate as CAD techs, which meant they'd do the input and output, and be paid well for their technical expertise.) At the architecture firm, I used fancy commercial products like Zipatone, which were sticky sheets of patterned or toned film that you could use to 'color in' areas of drawings - comic books used those quite a bit, you'd recognize the dot patterns if you saw them. I also used products like Letraset transfers (, rub-on fonts that you could use to label drawings. We also used label makers that printed our text out on clear, adhesive film, which was a huge advance, because it guaranteed appropriate spacing between characters for the few fonts that were available. I remember spending days before a presentation, just preparing labels ("north elevation, south elevation, grade, north") to add to presentation drawings to give them that professional look...

Yes, I was "Old School." (Old now, in school then.)

One of my constant frustrations before the fax machine and/or digital imagery came into wide use was the phone conversations I'd have with colleagues about architecture projects. They'd be some oddball shape on a site, or a three dimensional obstacle, or a detail, and we'd have these completely futile conversations over the phone where we would describe complex, three-dimensional visual information verbally, and try to explain how to or how NOT to draw it in two dimensions. Now, this wouldn't be a problem: we'd scan a sketch and e-mail it, or photograph it with a phone camera and send it, or fax it, or we'd be working on it digitally anyway and just do a screen shot of the part and send it over...but that wasn't an option then.

I used photocopy machines (xerography machines) quite a bit then. If you had an image of a detail, you could very precisely enlarge or shrink it to the size you needed. Everything we did we put a measuring scale on, so we could confirm the precision of the enlargement (or measurable anolomalies, which existed in some machines, and which we could adjust for later)... And we could copy photographs, though in general the drawings we were doing were of views that could not be achieved through a camera, but they were still useful for certain reference information, and we usually included reference information in our photographs. (Always useful: friends who are exactly x feet tall.)

Despite the advance of so many other image-reproducing technologies in the meantime, the photocopy machines I used then were much, much, much better than those available now. You could reproduce photographs in the "photograph" mode with remarkably smooth tonal precision. The scaling tools were accurate. The images output were stunningly clean. Keep in mind that I was using tools made for the graphics industry - we're talking about machines that likely cost fifty grand and were made by companies like Kodak. My favorite copy machine was at the architecture firm. It was about size of a compact car, but only half as wide. It could do everything machines do now - two sided copies, stapling, collating, folding - but the feeder technology was different: it pulled the sheets in with a noisy vacuum, and if you wanted to make 50 copies of your 100 page document, it would suck the bundle through 50 times - it had no digital memory to store the data, and was making a direct electro-photographic image each time. And those images were really, really good.

Imagine my dismay when I recently decided to make some xerography negatives to use for a contact printing process on a photocopier, and realized that it couldn't handle duplicating a black and white, continuous tone photograph - and that it doesn't even HAVE a photo mode.

Duh. Of course it doesn't: photocopiers now are primarily used to make thousands of copies of memos that no one will ever read, in plain black and white type. There's no reason to provide a photo mode. Or to have modern copiers handle delicate tonal images of any kind - even company logos are usually designed to reproduce well under the worst conditions.

I didn't think that I'd find myself missing copier technology from the 1980s in 2007, but there it is. Yes, I have a professional inkjet printer which I routinely use to make "digital negatives" for contact printing, but it can't make negatives as dense as toner-carbon is, which I need for this special project. No, laser printers don't seem to make fine enough negatives: they have a sort of moiré pattern in the midtones which is undesirable and which is visible in the print.

I'm sure you're thinking this is a really arcane need, and it is - I'm contact printing photographs in the sun, for goodness sakes - but in the early days of xerography, artists had high hopes for the new medium as an artistic one. It is a sort of photographic process, one that uses an electrostatic charge rather than wet chemistry to form an image, and the SPEED with which it can form that image is truly remarkable. Artists prepared presentations to show off the ability of the new medium. You probably haven't seen photocopies in your local museum, though: I think the ease, cheapness and ubiquity of the photocopy warned artists (outside of the punk rock world) away from using it as a tool for fine art: it calls into doubt the entire idea of a "unique" piece of art, the way photography has (and photography's status as "art" is still questioned constantly because of it). And if you sell one really great piece, there's nothing to stop your purchaser from making more!

So I miss the vast Kodak copier of my college years, though I'm happy I'm not trying to store it, power it, maintain it, or run it in my garage. :-)


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

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