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Woodburytypes Walter Bentley Woodbury, inventor of the Woodburytype photomechanical printing process, was born in Manchester, England on 26 June 1834. He early showed a scientific bent, and as a youth mastered the difficult wet-collodion process soon after the working details were published in 1851.
On hearing of the gold discoveries in Australia he resigned his apprenticeship as an engineering draughtsman and arrived in Melbourne in October 1852 but because of a temporary lull in gold finds, he took whatever jobs he could get. As an amateur he was one of the earliest wet-plate photographers in Australia, and won a medal at the 1854 Melbourne Exhibition. Then, realising that the wet-plate process was quickly displacing daguerreotypes he decided to turn professional. He worked for a time as an operator with P.M. Batchelder‘s Melbourne studio, and for a time had his own studio. A versatile photographer, he took panoramas and stereo photographs as well as portraits and conventional views.
In 1857 Woodbury, with associate James Page, migrated to Java. After Woodbury had solved the problem of using the collodion process under tropical conditions their business became highly successful. In addition to their commissioned work they travelled the country taking photographs for sale. Woodbury‘s stereo views when published in London were favourably reviewed in the British Journal of Photography.
Shortly after returning to England in 1863s he devoted himself to solving the serious problems which were inhibiting the sale of photographic books - the slow production rate of albumen prints and their tendency to fade. He moved from silver-based chemistry to the permanent but imperfect dichromate-based carbon process of Alphonse Poitevin, the main shortcoming of which was the poor rendering of half-tones. After much arduous work Woodbury solved the problem of rendering half-tones correctly, for which he was granted British Patent No.2338 of 1864.
Briefly, his process involved making a matrix in which each tone was represented by the thickness of hardened bichromated gelatin. From this an intaglio was prepared by electrolysis. From the intaglio the print was made in warm pigmented gelatin in what was essentially a casting operation using a press of his own invention. Two years later he perfected the process by replacing the electrolysis step with a procedure in which the hardened gelatin matrix was forced into a sheet of lead under high pressure. Prints were then cast from the resulting lead mould. The salient feature of the Woodburytype printing process was that it was suitable for high production rates of high quality images whilst avoiding the use of introduced grain or the half-tone screen. The half-tones and delicate detail were reproduced smoothly and precisely by the varying thicknesses of pigmented gelatin.
To publicise his process Woodbury himself printed several thousand images for an insert in The Photographic News of January 26, 1866. In 1875 he produced a photo-book "Treasure Spots of the World" as a demonstration of the superb quality of well-made Woodburytype reproductions. Although the cost of the equipment put Woodburytype out of the reach of small operators, it became the process of choice for high quality illustrated books as well as being equally suited to the mass production of ephemeral items such as cartes de visite of stage personalities, to be given away as advertising material. In one notable instance 30,000 CDVs were made in one day. Woodbury licensed the process in several countries. It was also adapted successfully for the production of lantern slides in large quantities.
Described as technically perfect and the most beautiful printing process ever invented, it was, however, not without its problems. The afterwork on the prints was labour-intensive as each sheet had to be treated in an alum bath, washed, dried, trimmed and mounted. A further shortcoming was that the prints could not be combined with letterpress.
In 1879 Woodbury patented the simplified Stannotype process which did not require the expensive lead moulding press but it found little acceptance. Woodburytype was highly successful until the 1890s when it was replaced by cheaper but inferior processes.
Woodbury was a prolific and versatile inventor, holding more than twenty patents, ranging from improvements to optical lanterns to photography from a balloon. He was awarded many honours including a gold medal at the 1872 Moscow Polytechnic Exposition and the 1883 Progress Medal of The Royal Photographic Society
Although widely acknowledged and respected, Wooodbury lacked the business acumen needed to capitalise on his inventions. He contracted diabetes and died a poor man on 5 September 1885 at Margate, England.
His fame is assured by the legacy of superb prints made by the process which bears his name. Time has proved that the claim to permanence of Woodburytype prints was entirely justified. The beauty of Woodburytype prints made over a century ago, astounds us today.
© Alan F. Elliott (2006) - Used with permission