#CIHA202400902Hiding in Plain Sight: Tracing the Photographic Halftone's Material Aesthetic

B. Penser la Matière 2
Photomechanical Prints and the Material Agency of Images
B. Levy 1.
1Case Western Reserve University - Cleveland (États-Unis)

Adresse email : bll51@case.edu (B.Levy)


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Keywords: halftone, photomechanical, contemporary art, newspaper

This paper explores the inseparable aesthetic and materiality of the photographic halftone. The halftone process is the means by which a continuous-tone image is translated into a field of varying-sized dots for printing. Besides its primary function in photomechanical processes, the halftone gained cultural and artistic significance in contemporary art beginning in the latter part of the 20th century. Foregrounding 21st-century works by US-based artists such as Tauba Auerbach, Julie Mehretu, and Mungo Thomson, this paper considers the role of materiality and meaning in the persistence of the halftone aesthetic in the digital age.

Despite the ubiquity of the photographic halftone in our visual culture since the late 19th century, few readily identify the medium or aesthetic by name. To begin analyzing the impact of the halftone and its aesthetic on contemporary art, we must trace the technical development back to the 1890s. I examine the conditions of halftone images printed alongside metal type in newspapers. I argue that the newspaper—and the coarse halftone images that filled its pages—was a critical site for the creation of an enduring aesthetic.

In the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, the inventions and improvements enabling the mass production and dissemination of photographic images were brought to wide commercial viability. Specialty printing presses and techniques, coated paper stock, and the precision manufacture of photographic halftone screens facilitated the production of high-resolution images. At those resolutions, the abstract field of variable black dots solidly falls, as print scholar and curator William Ivins noted, "below the threshold of normal human vision." Consequently, the human eye filters the binary information and perceives the printed image not as black marks, but as shifting tonalities.

If these technical circumstances—press, paper, and halftone—were uniform across printed matter, the halftone dot would not hold the cultural significance it does today. While the possibility of high-resolution images was available in many situations, these technological and material realities confined newspaper images to lower resolutions until the latter part of the 20th century. High-speed presses, rough uncoated newsprint, and the photographic and platemaking operations of the halftone process acted as a system of checks and balances. These contingent factors held newspaper images at a resolution where the network of undulating dots is visible to the naked eye. Under magnification or when enlarged, the abstract field of marks wrestles with the photographic image for visual dominance, resulting in the self-referential aesthetic of the halftone. I contend that the newspaper, both due to the technical conditions of its printing and the impact created by its mass distribution, is where the halftone received and retained its visual essence. This paper explores the material and technical conditions of this development to reveal the implications of the halftone aesthetic in the 21st century and expand the link between 20th century visual culture and contemporary artistic practice.


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CV de 500 signes incluant les informations suivantes: Prénom, nom, titre, fonction, institution

Benjamin Levy, Ph.D. Candidate in Art History and Assistant Curator of the Putnam Collection, Case Western Reserve University. Previous curatorial positions at the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, and the Baltimore Museum of Art and guest curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art. https://arthistory.case.edu/graduate-students/

Résumé / Abstract

This paper explores the inseparable aesthetic and materiality of the photographic halftone through the lens of contemporary art. To analyze the halftone's impact, we must trace the technical development back to the 1890s. Since then, the halftone has been ubiquitous in our visual culture, even though few can call it by name. Besides its primary function, the halftone has gained cultural and artistic significance in art since the latter 20th century. This study is foregrounded in 21st-century examples by US-based artists, where the halftone's significance persists, and its materiality and meaning continue to transform in the digital age.