The Art of Collotype: See a Near Extinct Printing Technique, as Lovingly Practiced by a Japanese Master Craftsman

When I was a kid,  I spent a lot of time at the Indi­anapo­lis Star, where my moth­er worked in what was then referred to as the “women’s pages.” She kept me busy return­ing the pho­tos that accom­pa­nied mar­riage and engage­ment announce­ments, using the SASEs the young brides had sup­plied. After that, I’d hit the print­ing floor, where vet­er­an work­ers sport­ed square caps fold­ed from the pre­vi­ous day’s edi­tion, as that day’s issue clacked on tracks over­head. If I was lucky, some­one would make me a gift of my name, set in hot type.

The Star still pub­lish­es — I shud­der to report that its web­site seems to have renamed it IndyS­tar… — but cul­tur­al and dig­i­tal advances have rel­e­gat­ed all of the par­tic­u­lars men­tioned above to the scrap pile.

They came rush­ing back with wild, Prous­t­ian urgency when Osamu Yamamo­to, a mas­ter print­er at Ben­ri­do Col­lo­type Ate­lier in Kyoto, men­tions the smell of the ink, in the short doc­u­men­tary above, how over the years, it has seeped into his skin, and become a part of his being.

Col­lo­type, defined by the Get­ty Con­ser­va­tion Insti­tute as “a screen­less pho­to­me­chan­i­cal process that allows high-qual­i­ty prints from con­tin­u­ous-tone pho­to­graph­ic neg­a­tives,” has been on the way out since the 70s. As mas­ter print­er Yamamo­to notes, it’s a low-effi­cien­cy, small batch oper­a­tion, involv­ing messy matrix­es, hand-oper­at­ed press­es, and heavy iron machines that give off a sort of ani­mal warmth when work­ing.

Rather than pressmen’s caps, Ben­ri­do’s shirt­less print­ers wear hachi­ma­ki, rub­ber aprons, and pur­ple dis­pos­able gloves.

Film­mak­er Fritz Schu­mann (whose film on the old­est hotel in Japan we pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured before) evokes the work­place — one of two remain­ing col­lo­type com­pa­nies in the world — through small details like the plas­tic-wrapped dig­i­tal Ham­taro clock and also by draw­ing view­ers’ atten­tion to the num­ber of years logged by each employ­ee. The art of col­lo­type takes a long time to mas­ter and novices appear to be in short sup­ply.

Should we con­ceive of this oper­a­tion as a quaint rel­ic, creep­ing along thanks to the whim­sy of a few nos­tal­gia buffs?

Sur­pris­ing­ly, no. The labo­ri­ous col­lo­type process remains the best way to dupli­cate pre­cious art­works and his­toric doc­u­ments. The way the ink inter­acts with retic­u­la­tions in the gelatin sur­face atop results in sub­tleties that pixel­lat­ed dig­i­tal images can­not hope to achieve.

Vis­i­tors to the stu­dio may sup­port the enter­prise by pick­ing up a hand­ful of col­lo­type-print­ed post­cards in the gift shop, but the office of the Japan­ese Emper­or is the one who’s real­ly keep­ing them in busi­ness, with orders to copy hun­dreds of del­i­cate, cen­turies old scrolls, paint­ings and let­ters.

Like a cir­cle in a circle…cultural preser­va­tion via cul­tur­al preser­va­tion! Per­haps the smell of the ink will pre­vail.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hōshi: A Short Film on the 1300-Year-Old Hotel Run by the Same Fam­i­ly for 46 Gen­er­a­tions

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer


- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday


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  • Wendell says:

    Remark­able! Do they have trained archivists/library sci­en­tists on staff there? It would be inter­est­ing to see how such a col­lab­o­ra­tion might work, if there would be a strength­en­ing of the mis­sion.

  • Takumi Suzuki says:

    Thank you for mak­ing this great movie, and thank you for intro­duc­ing.

    We, Ben­ri­do col­lo­type ate­lier is wan­it­ng sub­mis­sions for pho­to con­test HARIBAN AWARD 2015.

    The 2015 win­ner will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend two weeks work­ing with the mas­ter arti­sans at the Ben­ri­do Col­lo­type Ate­lier, pro­duc­ing eight muse­um-qual­i­ty col­lo­type prints of their work, which will then be shown at Kyotogra­phie 2016 and pub­lished in the col­lo­type cat­a­log.

    Sub­mis­sion peri­od: June 30, 2015

    To apply or learn:

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