“The people who built those machines are not here anymore,” says Osamu Yamamoto, who speaks deferentially of the cast-iron collotype printers at Benrido Atelier in Kyoto. Yamamoto is the manager of Benrido, a printing establishment that uses some of the last, traditional collotype machines in the world to create richly layered print reproductions, often of historic photographs and centuries-old calligraphic texts and ink-wash drawings. Not only do the collotype machines assist in preserving expressions of Japanese heritage, but the team of printers at Benrido Atelier also serve as stewards of a nineteenth-century image-making tradition that originated in France and spread around the world before being driven into obscurity by more mechanized printing processes.
A short film by Fritz Schumann captures Benrido Atelier’s collotype printers in action, singing their chorus of whirs, clanks, and clicks as they press layers of pigment upon paper. Their human collaborators stand quietly at their side, observing the rhythmic synchrony of drums and gears and feeding new sheets of paper into the mouths of the machines while removing freshly minted prints. Yamamoto explains how the collotype uses plates manually coated with gelatin to transfer fine gradations of ink onto paper. The result of this labor-intensive process is an image resolution that finds no match in contemporary digital and offset printing.
Yet, as Yamamoto notes, Benrido maintains its connection to the past in part by tuning into the present: Apple desktop computers exist alongside the cast-iron analog printing machines, and Yamamoto explains how digital image editing has given Benrido the edge to create vibrant reproductions that speak to the contemporary viewer. Today, you can view, touch, and purchase collotype prints from the Benrido shop in Kyoto.