A History Of The Woodburytype

by Matt Damsker


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By Barret Oliver. June, 2007; 193 pages, $50 hardcover; ISBN 13 No. 1-887694-28-5. Carl Mautz Publishing, 329 Bridge Way, Nevada City, CA 95959. Phone: +1- 530-478-1610; fax: +1-530–478-0466; email: cmautz@carlmautz.com ; website: http://www.carlmautz.com .

The potential for quality AND quantity afforded by Walter Woodbury's photographic process made it the breakthrough that sparked the medium's modern era–--an era of mass production and superb reproduction of photo plates in books, newspapers, journals and a broad range of commercial publications. As we learn in this fine and thorough study of Woodbury's innovation, the Woodburytype "set a qualitative standard for the reproduction and replication of photographic images and engravings by which all other processes would inevitably be compared and found wanting. It was not until the 1980s, with the advent of drum scanning and digital image processing, that the Woodburytype process was equaled or matched."

Barret Oliver's extensively researched argument for this rests, ultimately, on the visual evidence, and, indeed, the book's many first-rate examples of Woodburytypes reveal tonal masterworks that make the strongest case of all. Such examples of the process as a cabinet card of the Duke of York, from 1890, or Victor Hugo on his funeral bier, or a book-plate image of river workers on the Thames (a remarkable shot, by John Thomson, of sharply delineated men and materials on a boat in the foreground, with a mist-shrouded London as a backdrop) testify to the Woodburytype's superiority.

The fact that the process was limited to imagery not much larger than 10-by-8 inches--and could not adequately convey large areas of white--ultimately spelled its doom as a mass-production technique, relegating it to something of an historical footnote. Thus, Oliver's study is the first major Woodbury exploration in more than a century, and he takes pains to document and describe this first photomechanical printing process. He begins with an intriguing life of Manchester, England-born Walter Woodbury (1834-1885), a gifted inventor but apparently a poor businessman who lost his patent rights and most of his money over the years.

Woodbury had real vision, though, and he grasped before many of his contemporaries that photography's future would depended increasingly on its potential as a mass medium. By 1865, he gave birth to the Woodburytype, a copper-mold technique that, by the 1870s, resulted in as many as 50,000 prints a day being churned out by the Woodbury Permanent Printing Company in Ealing. Woodburytypes flourished in books and printed material of every type--rich, crisp images with no grain and velvety mid-range tonalities, ideal for portraiture and detailed textures. Barret Oliver's scholarly contribution sheds welcome light on Woodbury's achievement and its crucial impact on the growth of photography.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.