Sunday, August 19, 2007

Middleton's Geography

It is easily forgotten that images have done and continue to do informational work. I observed recently in the context of an Audobon image that formerly informational images are now valued primarily for their (to contemporary eyes) picturesque qualities. William Ivins' Prints and Visual Communication, a wonderfully dense and crotchety book (Harvard University Press, 1953) provides an extensive narrative of technical innovation in the development of what he calls the "exactly reproducible pictorial statement," but the best part of his argument has to do with the irrelevance of artistic values in the history of printing and printmaking. Although he worked as the curator of prints at the Metropolitan for many years, he comes away from a career's worth of investigation into the printed image with a profound respect for practical image-making and communication.

I'll provide more detail when time permits about Mr. Ivins' book, which retains great value today. Were he alive (1881-1961, a remarkable lifespan for the history of image reproduction technology) he would be delighted by CAT scans, commercially available satellite photography and electron microscopy, not to mention other image technologies.

The dominance of received wisdom in the late medieval period worked against true reportage by imagemakers. Ivins observes the significance of certain botanical illustrations, composed from observation as opposed to recopying previous prints, the latter a slow motion bastardization process in which all information was lost to mindless standardization of form.

Reportage of the world in visual form has its roots in the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. Middleton's Geography (London, 1778-79) provides an example of the demand for visual news of the world, even if (or especially because) exaggerated. My wife scooped these up at an estate sale on my behalf a number of years ago.

Images to accompany geographical travelogues were typically produced from verbal descriptions. Middleton's engravers sat deskbound in England working heroically if also comically to realize others' reports in visual form. Above find an attempt to capture Cheneyesque efforts to gain the truth in Ceylon. Below, a Peruvian rope-bridge.
Images: various plates from Middleton's Geography, published in London 1778-79.

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