The cover page with title and photogravure print
Picturesque Camden is an excellent subject for study when considering the use of decoration in historical books, as it has many examples of earlier printmaking techniques. Specifically, it is filled with photographs printed using the photogravure method. These photos would have represented some of the most cutting-edge printing technology when the book was published in the 1880’s. It is interesting to consider the role that these photos play in the book’s purpose, as it is designed as a combination guide and advertisement, so they play the dual part of selling the town and showcasing landmarks for the unfamiliar traveler. The photos are tasteful and artistic, acting as a counterpart to the often high-flying style of the text and serving as a visual enticement to potential visitors. At the same time, they reinforce the practical element of the book, identifying important landmarks allowing the reader to place the words on the page in visual context as they travel. This contradiction is representative of the multifaceted nature of the volume as a whole, and the photos complicate rather than illuminate the true purpose of the book.
The book is filled with photos, so much so that they may be considered its most notable feature. These prints are all in black and white, and were printed using the photogravure method, a type of printing that would have been brand-new in the 1880’s. This can be determined by an attribution on the inside of the back cover describing them as such. It is interesting that these prints are attributed as being done by photogravure, as the similar but not identical rotogravure method generally predominates in cheaper periodicals and other print materials similar to this book. The major difference between the two processes is that photogravure uses a hand etched plate to print, while rotogravure uses a cylindrical machine. The photogravure technique captures a range of tones and is associated with softer images that often resemble paintings, a style known as Pictorialism that was in vogue in the time period that Picturesque Camden was printed (photogravure.com).
The prints are attributed in the book as coming from a Lewiston, Maine based archive, so they were not taken directly for the purpose of use in Picturesque Camden. It is unclear whether they were in the public domain at the time of printing. This may explain why a printing process associated with quality art is used in this book. It also raises tantalizing questions as to the background of the photos: were they all taken by the same photographer? If so, what was their original purpose? How were they obtained by the printer, and if so, how much money did they cost? Why didn’t the publisher simply have new photos taken for the book and printed using the more cost-effective rotogravure technique? All of these questions are important because the issue of the prints further blurs the distinction between expendable guide or even piece of advertising and true literary work; this issue has been discussed in earlier posts, and the prints complicate rather than resolve it.
The usage of the prints within the book is also worthy of note. They are actually quite high in number in relation to the amount of pages, and are featured throughout the work rather than in a separate photo section, as can be seen in many modern paperbacks. Each picture has an accompanying caption that ties it to the text, and each picture makes sense within the context of the book. The prints’ placement can be seen as underscoring authorial descriptions of various sites of natural beauty and aesthetic significance, and this may explain why a more expensive printing method was used, as the visual beauty of the sites depicted is used to lure potential tourists to the Midcoast. However, the prints have a more practical function as well; if the book is used as a companion to travel, the pictures can help visitors situate themselves during their trip and make use of the book’s accompanying narrative. This latter purpose is indicated by the large number of photos and their close connection to descriptions in the text, as noted above. It is possible that just as the book itself may have had multiple intended uses, the photos do as well.
“The Story of Photogravure.” Photogravure, photogravure.com/story-of-photogravure/.