Monday, August 04, 2008

A Short History of Paper and Film

Before the mid-nineteenth century, paper was primarily made from discarded rags, especially cotton and linen. The production of linen from flax already partially transforms the fiber into a high-cellulose material, and cellulose is the fundamental ingredient of paper. The cloth was broken down into a pulp, mixed with water, recast and dried. Wood-pulp paper is made through a similar process, but the wood first has to be chemically treated in order to produce a similarly high-cellulose product. Sulfur and caustic alkaline sodas can transform pulped wood into a cellulose mix nearly as good as linen. And there is a much larger supply of wood and plant cellulose than linen or cotton. In the nineteenth century, wood appeared to be a virtually unlimited natural resource; in this respect, the shift from linen to woodpulp is similar to the shift from whale oils to petroleum.

In the early nineteenth century, chemists and papermakers experimented with a wide range of materials in search of a substitute for rags. Not only was the supply of good quality cloth limited, but reuse of rags also had the drawback of spreading disease, especially cholera and tuberculosis. In the nineteenth century too, the lifting of excise tariffs and production regulations made paper production and circulation much less expensive, putting more demand on an alternative to rag paper. Joel Munsell's history of papermaking (first published in 1857, before woodpulping became popular) lists 110 different candidates (mostly unsuccessful) for paper, from animal substances and asbestos to white wood and wool, including banana leaves, cabbage stumps, hornets' nests, leather cuttings, manures, plaintains, and saw dust. Experimentation with cellulose and various chemical treatments led to the production of the first polymer plastics, and eventually to collodion wet-plate photography and finally to flexible celluloid film.

Photography, too, simultaneously evolved from daguerrotype images on metal plates (which could not be reproduced and so retained some of the auratic quality of traditional artwork), wet collodion-on-glass and dry gelatin treatments before eventually arriving at the continuous flexible film similar to what we know today. Eastman Kodak, the company credited with the introduction of flexible film (and the supplier of continuous film rolls for Thomas Edison's early motion pictures), had originally used a chemical treatment on ordinary paper in their famous camera. Users could take multiple pictures, send their camera (including the paper film) to be developed by the office. This radically democratized photography. But the regular paper stock produced poor quality negative images and positive prints, so they quickly switched to the paper-based celluloid polymer. In The Manufacture of Paper, R.W. Sindall classifies photographic film with carbon and parchment paper as merely another form of "special paper" treated with a substance to produce a special effect.

But there's another way in which film borrows from nineteenth-century developments in paper production, which is the high-volume industrial production of continuous sheets. Woodpulp paper solved the problems peculiar to linen, and with the lifting of taxes, the mid-nineteenth century saw an explosion of paper documents: not only books, but newspapers, advertisements, leaflets and manifestoes. Along with wastepaper wrappers, cardboard, and other nondocumentary uses, paper formed much of what we'd recognize today as the visual and material culture of modernity. And the seat of the most important innovations was probably the newspaper, which combined literary and political writing with advertisements, photography, and other "new" arts, and which contributed the most to technological advances in print and papermaking. Continuous printing, linotype and phototype, transform printing in exactly the same way from the single-page, handset letterpress as celluloid film (and eventually the cinema) transform photography from the single-shot daguerrotype and glass plate.


Dan said...

Paper: more modern than you think.
Paper: its high tech, baby.
Paper: shove it, Edison.

I like it.

Very nicely written, too.

Tim said...

Paper: the first and best plastic.