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
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.