The Cliché-verre: Hand drawn/Light printed

The birth of photography is generally considered to have occurred in the year 1826, when a Frenchman, Nicéphore Niépce, succeeded in making a permanent image on a pewter plate. But it wasn’t until over a dozen years later, in 1839, that painter and showman Louis Daguerre announced the invention of his Daguerreotype, and Photomania was off and running. During this same time, an equally significant (perhaps even more so) series of experiments were being conducted across the Channel in England by Henry Fox Talbot. He was aware of the others’ work, but his approach was slightly different. Rather than attempting to make a single picture using light-sensitive materials as Niépce and Daguerre had done, he concentrated on using the negative image that was produced as an intermediate step to reproduce still another negative image. This double reversal process not only allowed him to achieve his goal of a positive image, it gave him the added benefit of being able to make an unlimited number of images—all identical.

Although it was the Daguerreotype that attracted the first photographers, it was the negative/positive process of Talbot that has been in principal use since then. It didn’t take long for the visual artists—painters and draughtsmen—to exploit the new technology. Within two months, of the Daguerre’s announcement, three engravers, (two brothers, William and Frederick James Havell and James Tibbitts), exhibited their examples of prints reproduced from drawings made on glass—cliché-verre prints made by passing light through a hand drawn negative.

Camille Corot was one of the first painters who made extensive use of the new cliché-verre process. He made drawings on glass of the French countryside that could then be reproduced at will. Jean-Francois Millet made drawings of peasant farmers and other common folk using the technique. Other painters who were introduced to the technique were Eugene Delacroix and Théodore Rousseau. They were associated with the Barbizon School, a group of artists near Paris who wanted to return to naturalism.

In the 20th century, Paul Klee was probably the first to experiment with cliché-verre. His notebook of 1902 records his experiments of drawing on glass plates and contact printing the results on photographic paper. Again, no camera was used for any part of the process.

Man Ray, the Dadist painter and photographer, made his first cliché-verre drawing in 1917, by scratching the image on exposed photographic film. Brassai added a Cubist touch in executing his cliché-verre prints.

Even Pablo Picasso got into the act by scratching his images on normally processed photographic negatives that had previously been exposed in a camera by others.

In the 1940’s, American Henry Holmes Smith investigated yet another approach to cameraless photography. He dribbled syrup onto small glass plates and allowed it to run around as gravity dictated. Then (using the plates as negatives in an enlarger) he printed the results. Because of the domed characteristics of the syrup, the light was refracted producing tonal modulations. Using color paper, he created multi-colored cliché-verre prints.

Following this same abstract and inventive path, Frederick Sommer coated thin pieces of wrinkled cellophane with soot from a kerosene lamp, and then printed enlarged cliché-verre prints by projection.

Today, many workers in the fields of photography and printmaking continue to pursue and modify the concept of what is a cliché-verre. Cliché-verre prints can be made and enhanced using an unlimited number of methods, including the dye transfer process, cyanotype, Van Dyke brownprint, bromil, and hand coloring with numerous materials. Since the advent of xerography, copy machines have been added to the long list of possible tools. With all the recent advancements with digital cameras, printers and computer graphics software, the cliché-verre process will surely continue to evolve in new and exciting directions.

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