Collotyping, a photography printing process that is fading in much of the world, is still very much alive at a Japanese studio called Benrido. First, there's the noise. Giant cogs roar as they turn and bite into parts of old steel. Each and every one of its teeth is decorated with a deep crust of ink and dust. Above the metal wheel, a large wooden overhang beats mutedly at each turn, like a drum machine underwater. And then comes the smell. Oh, the smell. Grease, cleaning chemicals, and hundreds of sheets of paper, always kept at high humidity.

The industrial odors do not bother Osamu Yamamoto, 54, head of the collotype studio at Benrido. He has been working here for 36 years now. “The smell has seeped into my body and it has become part of my life,” he says. Dwarfed by the massive eight-ton machines that loom over him, he pauses to give his eight workers a careful and stern gaze.

Collotype, invented in 1856 by Louis-Alphonse Poitevin in France, is an old printing process. Artists and engineers in Germany further developed the form, and by the dawn of the twentieth century, the collotype machine was one of the most common printing technologies used around the world. Many people today might not even realize that they own a collotype-printed postcard or picture.

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The process of collotyping is closely linked to photography. Prints are made by rolling a sheet of paper over a gelatin-covered glass plate that has been previously imprinted with the image on a film negative. This process can retain extremely fine details, unlike the dot matrix used by modern printers, and images can stay sharp for decades. Yet despite all its virtues, the technology is nearly extinct and is now practiced only in Japan.

In discussing his own work, Yamamoto humbly recounts a long list of clients, including all the major museums in Japan as well as the Imperial Household Agency. This means that Benrido often works directly for the Japanese emperor, reprinting old scrolls, books, and letters. And for that, Yamamoto considers his work a matter of national importance.

IRON TREASURE

After Yamamoto graduated from high school, one of his old teachers introduced him to the workshop at Benrido. He was immediately impressed by the large machines and the delicate pieces of art they produced. “It's not in my family's blood to sit behind a desk,” Yamamoto says. “We were always good with machines.” His father was a train engineer, and his mother worked with fabric manufacturers.

The decline of the collotype wasn’t sudden. It came about steadily and slowly, like ink drying in the sun.
Many of his classmates also joined the company, but only Yamamoto survived the harsh training and remained on. Soon after his collotype career began, Yamamoto met his wife at the studio. They have been printing together for 28 years now. “I'm thankful for the machines,” he says. To him, they feel like a living thing. They breathe, grow warm, and pulsate. He compares the machines with old trees in a forest: silent but wise with all the history they’ve come in contact with.

Benrido, which means “Hall of Convenience,” is around 125 years old and since its modest beginnings as a printing company has always operated in Kyoto. Its headquarters—three floors of nearly windowless concrete located in a back alley between the Old Imperial Garden and the fairly new Manga Museum—is a thoroughly uninteresting building. But it hides its iron treasure inside.

SLOW AND STEADY

The decline of the collotype wasn’t sudden. It came about steadily and slowly, like ink drying in the sun. With the advent of color photography, collotyping became less attractive since it printed only in black and white at that time. Up to the 1970s, the collotype held on. But eventually it could no longer keep up with mass demand—the old steel printers allow for only a couple of hundred prints a day.

Therefore, most studios either dismantled or modernized. In Europe, that transition happened alongside a rise in economic development. The West was the first to prosper and lose the collotype. The East followed years later, with the majority of the collotype businesses shutting down after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. At that time, East Germany still had a number of studios, but they were mostly bought off and sold for scrap by investors from the West.

Studio Leipzig, which opened in 1890 and shut down its daily operations in 2013, is particularly noteworthy. It was the personal favorite of the East German leader Erich Honecker, who gave away collotype prints of work by German artists as gifts when visiting other states. Half-proud and half-embarrassed, the former technicians in Leipzig still talk about the prints they made, one of which Honecker gave to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the 1970s.

After German unification, Studio Leipzig rejected all the buyout offers it received and survived only through its passion for the craft and by purchasing leftover ink from other European collotype workshops that shut down. After the last studio in the United Kingdom closed its doors in the early 2000s, only two remained in Europe. Fratelli Alinari in Florence, Italy, a former family business (founded as a photo studio in 1852 and then a collotype print business beginning in 1888), shuttered in 2011. Leipzig is still technically open but rarely prints these days. One of the last printers in the United States, Black Box Collotype near Chicago, halted its work in 2004.

A year ago, Benrido initiated the international Hariban photography contest, where the studio turns the winning images into collotype prints that are exhibited around Kyoto. Yamamoto hopes that these efforts will renew interest in this unique technology.
Japan saw a similar decline in the collotype. A century ago, there were a hundred printers in Kyoto alone. Today, there are only two companies left: Shinyosha, which uses black-and-white collotype printing for a small fraction of its business; and Benrido, the last fully functioning collotype studio in the world. It has figured out a way to print in color by taking inspiration from traditional Japanese woodblock printing, known as ukiyo-e. And in the last five years, Benrido has adapted its massive steel printers to the information age—it can work with digital files, too. But even Yamamoto admits: collotype is not selling well.

Despite taking up half of the company's building and employees, collotype accounts for only 30 percent of Benrido's business. The company’s real value lies in its workers’ craft and its mission to conserve important works of art and history. Just like the art it reproduces, the old printing machines cannot be rebuilt. The blueprints have been lost, and the engineers who developed them are now long gone. Only a handful of people in the world, most of them in Japan, spend the three to seven years required to learn how to handle the machines. Every noise the steel makes communicates to the technician what's wrong or what needs fixing. An experienced ear is crucial to the machines’ survival. And this knowledge dies along with the people who have learned the skill.

Benrido currently employs about 70 people, and more than 30 are technicians, chemists, photographers, and digital artists dedicated only to collotyping. To ensure its continued survival, the company is very active in promoting its ancient craft. Or as Yamamoto puts it, “It is our duty to promote the collotype.” Benrido frequently invites schools, university students, and artists to attend its workshops, and it opens its studio to visitors. The company also tries to tap a younger audience, sharing its new collotype prints on Twitter and its blog, as well as offering collotype prints on iPhone covers at its gift shop. A year ago, Benrido initiated the international Hariban photography contest, where the studio turns the winning images into collotype prints that are exhibited around Kyoto. Yamamoto hopes that these efforts will renew interest in this unique technology.

Before the latter two disappeared, Benrido, Fratelli Alinari, and Studio Leipzig all collaborated with one another at one point. Over the years, they sometimes shared ink or exchanged knowledge. Yamamoto was saddened to hear when they stopped printing, but he has his work cut out for him for as long as his eyes remain sharp and he has the physical strength to run the machines. Twenty years ago, the emperor commissioned Benrido to print pages from a collection of ancient Japanese scrolls, letters, and poems that have been conserved at the historic Shosoin treasure house for over a millennium. The complete body of work, considered one of Japan’s national treasures, is so massive and intricate that his studio will not finish printing it before Yamamoto retires.

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  • FRITZ SCHUMANN is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker from Germany. He lived and worked in Japan from 2009 to 2014 and has published three books about the country.
  • More By Fritz Schumann