Freeing the hand (media theory)

Prints and Visual Communication (1953) – William Ivins [] [FR] [DE] [UK]

I’ve read ten pages of William M. Ivins, Jr.‘s Prints and Visual Communication and this work is incredible and incredibly neglected. In its first ten pages it presents a full revisionist history of Classical Antiquity vs. The Dark Ages (what the Greeks and Romans didn’t have). (see “Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages“, Lynn White, published in Speculum#15, April 1940)

But more remarkable still:

From the blurb:

“The sophistication of the photographic process has had two dramatic results–freeing the artist from the confines of journalistic reproductions and freeing the scientist from the unavoidable imprecision of the artist’s prints. So released, both have prospered and produced their impressive nineteenth- and twentieth-century outputs.”

With all Ivins’s talk about “freeing the artist from the confines of journalistic reproductions” with regards to the invention of the photographic process, I find it very surprising to find no mention of Walter Benjamin‘s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in this book. Benjamin wrote in 1935/1936:

“For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens.”

8 thoughts on “Freeing the hand (media theory)

  1. lichanos

    Thanks for plugging Ivins, one of my heroes as you know.

    Ivins may not have known about WB – how well known was he in the USA at that time? More to the point, I doubt he would have cared about him. To read the two of them is to see the difference between a careful, thoughtful scholar whose view is informed by deep wisdom and understanding of the implications of his judgments, and the rather wild and undisciplined jottings of a very brilliant but unfocused philosophe.

    Benjamin did call attention to the status of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, but notice how he dealt with it. He goes on about the “aura” of the authentic and unique work that is dissipated with repetition of the image. This sort of “metaphysical” maundering sounds great, but says so much less than Ivins’ close and sustained analysis.

    I’ll take Ivins over Benjamin any day, and I wish his book would supplant Illuminations etc. on academic bookshelves everywhere…

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  3. jahsonic

    wild and undisciplined jottings of a very brilliant but unfocused philosophe.

    sounds like yours truly 🙂

    but of course we need both:

    *close and sustained analysis
    *metaphysical maundering

  4. lichanos

    My own view is one should publish one’s close analysis and keep one’s maundering personal…

    Of course, my blog could be construed as undermining my position here…

  5. Paul Rumsey

    I don’t understand this “freeing the hand” – just because a job existed to provide illustrations does not mean that this was some kind of slavery for the illustrator to be freed from. And to do what? They were made redundant, a skill was lost because a cheaper and easier method was found.
    It also suggests that photographs are better than illustrations, this is not true, they are different but often inferior. Would those Peter Parker portraits in the Nov 25th post be better as photos?
    As an example, when I want to put an animal in a drawing I have to find information, so I look on google images, loads of books of animal photos, but by far the best source of information are books of Victorian engravings.
    I have three volumes of Cassell’s Natural History and three volumes of J G Wood’s Natural History (1876) and also some recent collections of these engravings like the Dover book “Animals, 1419 copyright free illustrations”
    These I find better than photos because the artists studied the animals, understood the anatomy and make clear all the details , direction of fur etc. They are designed to make the animal clear to the viewer.
    Photos just don’t have this kind of detail, the feet are often hidden by grass, and the anatomy hidden by random effects of light and perspective.
    So after all these years of photography I find myself relying on Victorian engravings. And any one of these engravings is so beautiful you can imagine it framed on the wall (which is why some bastards pull these books to bits)
    I should say that in recent years animal photos have got a lot better….

  6. lichanos

    Ivins is concerned with aesthetics secondarily, and transfer of “information” primarily. If you want to convey to another how a flower will look to them when it’s in front of their face, a mediocre photograph is always better than a mediocre drawing.

    Of course, a brilliant drawing might be more informative than a poor or mediocre photo, but his interest is not in evaluating specific examples, but assessing the social tools for transferring information. From this standpoint, representations produced by hand are inferior.

    His initial description of the history of botannicals, and their vexing images, makes this so clear!

  7. Paul Rumsey

    Photos often give the illusion of having more information because they are “real”, but when I am trying to extract information from an image it is easier from an engraving than a photo. This is because the work has been done by the artist to explain the animal.
    The quality of engravings started to fall off as artists came to rely on photos, those engravings look like the animal but don’t tell you much.
    Then the engravings were replaced by bad quality photos.
    It is only quite recently that the quality of photos has got better.

  8. lichanos

    I think if you were a botanist in the early nineteenth century you would have had a different opinion…

    I agree that photos often give the illusion of knowledge. I deal in maps on computers, and people often feel that an aerial photo is better than a simple map. In fact, extracting the needed info from an aerial photo or satellite image can be difficult and frustrating. The beauty of the map is that the cartographer (artist) has done that for you.

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