A Story of Ink and Steel

Japan Saves a Nearly Extinct European Technique

The Three Beauties. Fritz Schumann

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.


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

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