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Albertina Museum exhibits original photographs, test prints, and book maquettes
Aus: Die Wiener Werkstätte. 1903–1928. Modernes Kunstgewerbe und sein Weg. Festschrift zu 25jährigen Bestehen der Wiener Werkstätte, Wien: Krystall-Verlag, 1929. Photoinstitut BONARTES.

VIENNA.- While photography now dominates nearly every type of publishing genre, the origins of its interplay with publishing have increasingly been forgotten—but the path by which photography entered books was long and littered with numerous technical hurdles, a fact that makes the various creative solutions fielded by pioneers in this area all the more intriguing. Original photographs, test prints, and book maquettes (original book designs) from the collections of the Albertina Museum open up a new perspective on a previously overlooked aspect of Austrian cultural history, which is characterized by diverse interrelationships between scientific curiosity, industrial interests, artistic experimentation, and an educational policy beholden to the Enlightenment.

This exhibition, which includes around 300 items from between 1840 and 1940, sheds light on an extraordinary panorama of innovative achievements manifested as luxury volumes and advertising brochures, travelogues and scientific atlases, artists’ designs and industrial documentation. And a broad spectrum of early photo books from Austria—of which this is the first-ever exhibition—presents fascinating combinations of convincing photography, refined book design, and artisanal perfection. The publication produced for this exhibition traces photography’s path to books in even more depth: on over 200 pages, comprehensive texts and full-scale facsimiles reveal fascinating historical relationships between text, image, and book object.

The advent of photography in 1839 inspired even its earliest commentators to express promising visions of the future, visions that associated this medium with that of books from the very beginning. They compared the innovation of photography with that of book printing long before it became possible to duplicate photographs in large numbers. Photography’s revolutionary potential was recognized not only in its ability to depict details authentically without human intervention but also in its mechanical reproducibility—the development of which, however, was still in its nascence.

Even so, photographic depiction’s aura of authenticity and infallibility was so strong that this new medium quickly came to be considered indispensable in printed books. So at first, publishers made do with illustrations after photographs—realized as lithographs or wood engravings. 1857 saw the appearance of books with photographs glued in to illustrate the text. The demand for such productions was to be found above all in innovative areas of scientific research and in that era’s expanding industry, but there were also volumes produced privately as luxurious mementos. The print runs involved here were to remain far smaller than those that had been made possible by the revolutionary invention of the printing press, which had first facilitated the widespread dissemination of written works.

There followed decades of institutionally led attempts to render photography printable, with such a technology being viewed as something of an “Egg of Columbus” (Ludwig Schrank, 1864). This phase witnessed the development of refined printing techniques that made possible high-quality image reproduction, thus satisfying a universal desire among scientists to publish comprehensive pictorial atlases with detailed photographic depictions that could serve as authentic comparative material suitable for use in research.

The definitive “professionalization” of photographic printing in Austria occurred at the Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt (photographic and graphic art school) under its director Josef Maria Eder, and the present exhibition’s main focus is devoted to this institution. Photographic images were then quick to find their way into the sophisticatedly designed books of the Viennese art nouveau.

1914 witnessed the International Exhibition of the Book Industry and Graphic Arts in Leipzig, an event for which Josef Hoffmann designed an Austrian pavilion as a contemporary setting in which to celebrate the significance of the Austrian Empire’s book industry. While the outbreak of World War I—which brought this event to a premature conclusion—did produce its own genre of illustrated volumes, it simultaneously marked the end of the era of luxury editions.

The interwar period brought with it further improvements in methods of printing photographs that finally allowed the production of inexpensive illustrated volumes. And for the first time, colorful book jackets were designed with photographic motifs—thus ringing in a whole new era on the book market. In the process, photography was liberated from its functions of illustrating text and storing “authentic” factual information. It indeed took on an entirely new character in avant-garde “photo books”: such books contained photographic images printed in deliberate sequences or juxtaposed, and it is as part of a clear interplay between images and text that the photos in books such as the the Wiener Werkstätte’s jubilee volume of 1929 or Stefan Kruckenhauser’s Snow Canvas (1937) appear in a quality that had never been seen before.

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