books: chromolithographs & origins

A fellow came through yesterday and bought eight or nine chromolithographs we'd extracted from a disintegrating natural history book.  Chromolithographs are a major factor in the scarcity of old medical and natural history books- the plates are so individually saleable that dealers will cut apart sound volumes to sell the illustrations ('plating' in the nomenclature of the business).  It was for a brief period the pinnacle of color reproduction, rampant in advertising and most of the better text and reference books had them in some quantity.  The process was complicated and only caught on for lack of a cheaper alternative- the moment one presented itself, chromolighography went the way of block printing.

(this is a picture of a chromolithograph)

They're quite striking in person, even in lesser examples like ours the colors are hugely more vibrant than anything offset printing can produce.  I'd cherry picked a stack of the more interesting ones for personal use & gifts for friends.  I find them fascinating, less for their graphic content (as striking as it can be) than for their genesis as commercial objects produced by fine art techniques and now extinct....I love them as objects.

So this guy bought a nice stack and malingered at the counter chatting with his friend while I rang up the rest of the line.  He'd apparently purchased a commercial scanner setup and was going to start a side gig selling prints of stuff like weird old chromolithographs scrounged from used book stores.

And I thought to myself, "why?"

The original object is absolutely worthy of fascination, the particulars of its creation transcending whatever image it depicts.  But the magic of a chromolithograph is specific to the process, translation into offset print renders it no more inherently interesting than a picture on your computer screen, like the one a few paragraphs up the page.  The intensity & quality of the color is not reproducible....other than chromolithographically.

And that is a difference I have with a great many people.

I appreciate the particulars objects beyond their function,  I crave the sensation of made things.  I dismiss ereaders for the same reasons I roll my eyes at the notion of copying a chromolithograph. Acceptance of either seems a species of surrender to the basest impulses of capitalism- cheaper, easier, faster, more, and never a pause to consider what's been lost.

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