How an Office Tool Changed the Art Game

Sam Vladimirsky
Jan 27 · 16 min read

The Case for Photocopy Art

Lesley Schiff, “Flower in Hand” from the “Seasons” series, color photocopy, 1980–81.

In 1977, twenty-six-year-old Lesley Schiff described herself as “a visionary lacking a category.” The artist, a native Chicagoan rechristened as a New Yorker, published a one-page article in Addix Magazine titled “Copy Art.” The piece reads like the precursor to a manifesto of sorts, appropriate for an artist who was producing an entirely new kind of image, using nothing but a neighborhood photocopier and a few simple props:

“The root word for technology comes from the Greek “techne”…which meant art. They had one word for art and manufacture. Xerography also comes from the Greek for “dry writing”. To me it’s corporate poetry…when you see something the mind xerox’s it. It doesn’t pick up a paintbrush. The machine puts into perspective a relation, it promoted my own creative activity — it’s direct, immediate and accessible.”

Lesley Schiff, from the “Seasons” series, 1980–81.

There were only two public copy machines in the whole city, Schiff says in an interview. One was at Jamie Canvas, where the copies were produced by members of staff, but a second store, one “for Wall Street People — busy all the time, like a madhouse,” let the customer use the machines. Schiff would raid her closet for props with different surface textures — a globe, a radio, jewelry — and experiment with the fervor of a mad genius on the brink of a Eureka Moment (Schiff prefers the humility of the tried-and-true “Aha!”) In this seemingly banal office tool, the embodiment of capitalist America’s need to make it quick, clean, and electronic, Schiff found “corporate poetry.” For the painter in her, the machine was the future of the artist’s studio: it was color and light, it was the painter’s palette and brush, and could enable her to lay down shades of red, yellow, and blue one at a time. “There was something more there, something much, much more.” She likens the process to painting with light.

Lesley Schiff had stumbled upon something new; yet, the technologies that brought her there were anything but. The directness, immediacy, and accessibility that Schiff found in photocopy art are characteristic of the entire history of photomechanical reproduction and dissemination. Since the mid-19th century, the ability to reproduce images offered living artists and long-gone greats alike the opportunity to achieve immortality by existing in many places at once, in other words, allowing images to be reproduced and seen en masse, often for the first time. Art and manufacture, as Schiff writes of the Greeks, were long part of the same phenomenon.

Throughout the course of its history, methods of reproducing the photographic image have welcomed and assimilated “new technical developments, with no fear of the tried and tested methods being abandoned,” writes art historian Stephen Bann. Since photography’s earliest years, it had long been accepted that images would change in the process of being reproduced, becoming less faithful to their medium of origin, and not in a negative way. Daguerreotypes were forced to accommodate engravings, engravings made way for embossed paper techniques, darkroom technologies paved the way for digital processes, and photocopies led to scanning and printing in the three-dimensional sphere. Each model called for the redefinition and rethinking of the previous system, as new ways of seeing and fabricating images were brought to the fore. The resulting photo copies (not to be confused with photocopies) transformed the role of the artist entirely (so too, in her own time, Schiff admits that she is a visionary who lacks a definable category).

A photocopied description of Ian Burn’s Xerox Book, 1968.

While sequences of translation and transformation between an image and its reproductions were often inevitable and dependent on existing technologies, contemporary artists like Lesley Schiff, Molly Springfield, Ian Burn and Sonia Sheridan embrace these processes and address them directly in their work. Burn’s Xerox Books from 1968 are a testament to the photocopier’s image-making potential; his work offers a direct trace of the reproduction process itself. Sheridan was one of the first to apply the concept of photocopy to the human form, and explored questions of photo reproduction in a revolutionary new method of crafting portraits. Schiff uses the photocopier exclusively as a tool to stage and develop pictorial images based on personal vision and aesthetic. Springfield’s work completely deconstructs all notions of medium specificity in photomechanical processes, and is informed by questions of reproduction, fragmentation, and the dissemination of information and visual images.

In recent years, the art world has curiously taken a keener interest in photocopy art. In January 2016, The Art Assignment, a PBS-sponsored digital series, released an episode about Molly Springfield, boldly entitled “Copy a Copy a Copy.” The ten-minute video profiles the D.C.-based contemporary artist, who attracted international attention for her meticulous graphite renderings of manipulated photocopies. In November of the following year, Whitney Museum of American Art curatorial fellow Michelle Donnelly organized a modest but well-received exhibition, “Experiments in Electrostatics,” which centered around the museum’s rarely-exhibited collection of photocopy art, ranging from the mid 1960s through the ’80s.

Both The Art Assignment and “Experiments in Electrostatics” outline ways in which an ordinary office tool could be used to make artwork, but they suggest neither the medium’s place nor its profound implications on the canon of art history; its photographic properties go completely ignored. Instead, photocopy art is presented as a sort of kitschy, secondary, “other” medium — a quirky, alternative, and accessible fashion of making images. Photocopy art is thus relegated to a space somewhere between folk art and high art, and its presentation to the public focuses almost entirely on the tool’s potential to craft images as opposed to the value of the images themselves.

The time is nigh to dismantle the superficial limitations placed on the photocopier as a tool, by instead focusing on its pictorial potential. My aim here is to bridge the boundary between photocopy art and its photographic implications, and to situate photocopy art (art made by the machine, but not inherently about the machine) in photography’s long history of photomechanical reproduction processes including engraving, daguerreotype, photocopy, even the screenshot of today’s ubiquitous smartphones, and will briefly touch upon 3-D printing in an effort to determine what defines the essence of photographic reproducibility across media, cultures, and devices.

LOST IN TRANSLATION?

LEFT: Antoine Claudet studio, Portrait of the Duke of Wellington (daguerreotype), May 1, 1844 // RIGHT: Henry Thomas Ryall, Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, engraving from Claudet’s daguerreotype, 1852.

The photographic image — in its broadest sense — came to be disseminated and seen. Existing technologies shaped the way photographic images were reproduced and disseminated en masse, often yielding significant disparities between the original image intended for reproduction, and that which was actually seen by larger audiences. Different stages in the image copying process each produced their own distinct permutations in the sequence of translation and transformation, blurring the boundaries of medium specificity in the process. In Parallel Lines, Stephen Bann poses two critical questions that must be considered when studying these transformative processes of photomechanical reproduction: firstly, can the reproducible image ever be more “accurate” than its source? And are there criteria for determining what would constitute a satisfactory “match”?

An 1844 portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Antoine Claudet (above, left ) addresses such questions, and offers a case where copies prove to be satisfactory matches (arguably even superior versions) to the original daguerreotype, despite being less technically “accurate.” The daguerreotype of the Duke was purchased by the publisher James Watson, who lent it to the artist Abraham Solomon, who used it to produce an enlarged oil painting. Together with the original daguerreotype, this portrait was then handed over to Henry Thomas Ryall, who forged a steel engraving (above, right) with the aim of correcting “those defects which of necessity arise in all daguerreotype portraits.” Thus in this series of portraits, painting embodies an idyllic representation of the human form, while the daguerreotype offers a level of excessive realism and flaws.

The most widely-circulated final image would warrant a combination of the two media. Ryall bridged the daguerreotype’s authenticity for documentation with painting’s potential for expressive sentimentality and iconization of its subject. Carte de visite copies of Ryall’s print were subsequently distributed by unnamed studios, probably illegally. Thus the most widely known “photographic” portrait of nineteenth century Britain’s greatest military hero was not a photograph at all, but rather the culmination of years of experimentation, reproduction, manipulation, and copying. The reincarnations of the Duke’s portrait as photograph, painting, engraving, print, and ultimately as a carte de visite, are characteristic of a period in the history of photography when exhibition and dissemination requirements dictated sequences of translation. “Images in the 1840s and 1850s,” writes Geoff Batchen, “were treated as fluidly transferrable across media.”

Ernest Clair-Guyot, “La garde-barrière,montage of two photographs on cardboard, white gouache and black ink; “L’Illustration,” 25 July, 1891.

Critical innovations in methods of photomechanical reproduction were pioneered in the years between the creation of the Wellington portraits in the 1840s and ’50s and Ernest Clair-Guyot’s 1891 image of a gatekeeper (left). These developments paved the way (if one is to take a teleological approach) to the eventual creation of photocopy art. Instead of copying a photograph onto a wood block, artists could modify a physical print, and retouch it with white gouache and black ink. These manual corrections of contrast, highlights, and shadows are reminiscent of darkroom techniques in photography, corrective settings on the photocopier, and the “Manual” mode on today’s digital cameras. In the same way that photocopy art relies on the quasi-autonomous functionality of the machine, so too photographers and printers in the 1890s came to rely less on manual modes of image-making. Rather than having to inscribe lines and shapes of the original image onto a woodblock, writes Thierry Gervais, the new embossed paper method effectively “limited the interpretation of the artisan.” By the time this image appeared in the French illustrated press, the blend of drawing, paint, and photograph was so well done that “photography had, in this case, reduced the illustrator to an anonymous role.”

Molly Springfield, “The Real Object, graphite on paper, 2006.

The intermedial work of Molly Springfield seems to adapt the multi-step process used to achieve Ryall’s final portrait of Wellington, and the increasing autonomy of the artist’s tool seen in Guyot’s collage. Springfield’s corpus is a conundrum for those daring enough to attempt to classify her work as adhering to a particular genre or medium. Like Wellington’s portrait, her drawings follow sequences of cross-media transformations to achieve a single image, which she labels “single drawings made up of multiple photocopies.”

Springfield’s process involves spending entire afternoons playing with book placements and copy machine settings: she leaves the machine open, stacks books, makes transparencies and layers paper, before meticulously rendering the final photocopy into a drawing, which only upon close examination can be said to not be a photocopy. Springfield invites the viewer to shift their attention to the complexity of the images’ fabrication by playing off of people’s expectations of recognizable media boundaries. Work that appears to follow all of the rules established by the photocopier, is in fact a drawing. Provocatively-titled pieces such as The Real Object (above) challenge the viewer to examine the relationship between original and copy, and either accept or reject the boundaries of the media used therein. By copying existing texts, manipulating them, and making a drawing from her own reproductions, Springfield examines the ways in which text and images survive by being reproduced and circulated. Her work creates form from matter and then form from form. Both Ryall’s prints of Wellington and Molly Springfield’s drawings rely on copied reproductions of celebrated subjects — be it an infamous general or a renowned literary text (such as Springfield’s Translation series, in which she draws photocopies of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time) — to achieve immortality in living memory through copy and dissemination. Proust would have loved it.

Ian Burn, “Xerox Book #1,” 1968.

Flaws in the copy process were inherent in the daguerreotype of the Duke of Wellington, whose subsequent transformations sought to correct “mistakes,” or rather, the new vocabulary of visual realism, offered by the initial photograph. By contrast, Molly Springfield embraces visual flaws; by drawing scanning lines, wrinkles, marginalia, and creases in the texts she copies, Springfield enhances the believability of her drawings to appear photographic. Flaws in early xerography technology such as graininess, discoloration, and the presence of miscellaneous streaks are explored by Ian Burn in his Xerox Book (above), which offers a different perspective of the sequence of translation apparent in photocopy. In it, he explains his process:

1. A blank sheet of paper was copied on a Xerox machine.

2. This copy was used to make a second copy.

3. The second copy was used to make a third, and so on….

Each copy as it came out of the machine was re-used to make the next.

This was continued for one hundred times, producing a book of one hundred pages.

Burn’s work attests to the radical new accessibility and accuracy in replicating existing visual images and offering the possibility of making new ones. With each photocopy, the grains, lines, and various ephemera undergo a plethora of transformations — curiously, as the series progressed, the “flaws” came and went. The paper would go from purely white, to highly spotted, and back again several times over. While it was Burn who conceptualized and realized this process, Xerox Book continues the pattern of distancing the artist further and further from the photo-copy process than ever before. Some have suggested that this is a reflection of the culture in which the photocopier was created. “Corporate poetry,” says Lesley Schiff, “makes me an American artist.” Photocopy art fit in naturally with American interest in technology and mass consumer culture, evident in Pop Art of the same period. It is a reflection of the accessibility that was always behind reproduction processes. To this effect, the artist displayed the one hundred photocopies in book form, which anyone could pick up in their exhibition. To borrow from Thierry Gervais’s description of the Gatekeeper, the media in Xerox Book “have been merged to produce an illustration whose syntactical limits are blurred, rendering it impossible to make any clear-cut distinction about the origin of the image or its mode of reproduction.”

ENHANCED VISION: SEEING THE IMPOSSIBLE

London in 1842, Taken from the Summit of the Duke of York’s Column, wood engraving, 1843.

In August 1839, Claudet’s friend, the French optician Noël Lerebours, wanted to create a series of engravings after daguerreotype landscapes entitled Excursions daguerriennes: Vues et monuments les plus remarquables du globe. Claudet contributed to the initial photographic phase, setting up his camera thirty-eight meters above the ground and exposing a sequence of consecutive horizontal daguerreotypes. These plates were then combined into a single 180-degree panoramic engraving by an artist perched in the same spot, who had “the deficiencies” filled in from nature. The final image (above) was “a costly publicity stunt and a huge success,” says Batchen, which ultimately produced a photographic image “bigger than anything previously issued.” It allowed British audiences to see and experience a familiar city from a revolutionarily new perspective.

“This document” installation at Galerie Thomas Zande, 2014. The piece is a twenty-panel drawing traveling the length of an underlined sentence.

London in 1842 exemplifies a quintessential aspect of photo-copy artwork: the illusion of a certain limitless extended vision that allows viewers to experience that which lies “beyond the normal optical capacity of either a human viewer or any single camera.” This can mean constructing entirely new ways of seeing, as in the work of Lesley Schiff or by redefining the way we experience the familiar. Molly Springfield enhances our vision through the extreme magnification of a single, fragmented underlined sentence, which she invites us to try and put together across twenty panels (left). Claudet zooms out where Springfield zooms in. Both artists, however, show us what is at once plausible and impossible.

Sonia Sheridan, “Software Show,” Jewish Museum of New York, 1970.

“Although copy art would ultimately remain a marginal artistic practice,” admits scholar Kate Eichhorn, it nevertheless pushed contemporary art beyond accepted visual conventions. In a groundbreaking exhibit for new media art at the Jewish Museum in 1970, Sonia Sheridan inched closer to using the photocopier in a way that transcended Burn’s practice. While her “Software Show” was still centered on the strange and intriguing images which could be produced with a photocopier, she nevertheless explored its pictorial potential in a way that Burn had not. The “lab-coat-wearing artist-engineer” Sheridan invited visitors to interact with a color copier to photocopy hands, faces, and bodies before transferring them to T-shirts or heat-laminating them to paper in just a few minutes (above). The surfaces onto which these images were projected were the twentieth century version of Paris’s famous carte-de-visites: readily-made and accessible.

One image from the Software Show stands out in particular (above). It features a high contrast portrait of one of many hippie teen girls in tie-dyed jeans and thrifted dresses that stopped by Sheridan’s photocopy experiment to press their faces against the glow of a scanning bed. When I first came across this image, I was convinced the girl had propped herself onto the surface of the copier, and pressed her knees to her chest. Only after examining it more closely did I realize that she had in fact lifted her shirt and placed her breasts, nipples down, onto the glass surface, which was then scanned to produce this piece. This intimate view of a young woman would not be possible in any other medium. Only through the semi-private, hooded photocopier, could she be offered sufficient privacy from curious minds and wandering eyes. Her tightly-shut eyes and placement of her hand to cover her face are not simply a response to the photocopier’s blinding light, but are also suggestive of a certain discomfort and humility in response to such an exposing, frontal, and direct way of capturing her portrait.

Anyone who did not know the story of their creation, would probably point out the images’ resemblance to photographs. Any doubt that photocopies were not “photographic” is denied here: both processes use natural light to create a direct representation, and in both instances, angle defines form.

Lesley Schiff, “Seasons” series, 1980–81.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Lesley Schiff pioneered the use of “modern color” and pictorial form in photocopy art. Rather than make work on the machine about the machine, for Schiff, the photocopier was just another tool in the artist’s arsenal. In so doing, she reclaims the artist’s vision and creativity over the instrument by which he or she realizes it; in other words, Rembrandt was not great for the quality of his pencils, and so too, Schiff distances herself from her medium of choice, thereby elevating the status of photocopy art from kitsch.

“Skill is only the medium that keeps open the conduit in order to hear the transmission clearly,” Schiff writes in “The Language of the Spirit,” a poetic verse she refers to as an excerpt from her thinking, “the trained hand and eye, then has only to obey and read/ the message, the code, / and it will know exactly what to do.”

Schiff claims to “bend whatever medium I find myself in / in order to convey an intention.” In her groundbreaking Seasons series, which would later become the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first digital art acquisition, the artist outlines seasons of existence and progress: man, woman, child, civilization, nature, and technology (above). Perhaps the cycle between man and technology was destined to be represented by an artist like Schiff, originally a painter, who redefined photomechanical reproduction sequences to produce work that does not rely on its process for meaning, but instead, allows the artist to realize entirely new ways of seeing. Batchen asserts this in his essay by arguing that photographs and their copies are “virtual image[s] conjured on the viewer’s retina, not a static entity made of metal or paper”; photography and copy transcend limitations imposed on a single medium.


Suffice it to say that twenty-first century technologies have only extended the ways in which images are communicated, copied, and disseminated. Today, in the digital era, processes of photomechanical reproduction can be done anywhere and at any time. The smartphone’s ability to screenshot, save, download, edit, and send any image on the internet continues to allow photographs to survive forever, even if in coded form of zeroes and ones, providing access to the same images to billions of people worldwide. Three-dimensional photo-copy processes bring this phenomenon to a new level altogether, as images can cross cultural, medial, and physical boundaries. And just when you think that this is unprecedented, Batchen reminds us that new, hybrid media have always been “transmitted throughout modern culture: a continual splicing of real and copy, here and there, us and them, time and space.”

LEFT: Molly Springfield, “Jane Austen,” digital print (photocopy of e-reader), edition of 3, 2014. RIGHT: an 1873 engraving for Evert A. Duyckink’s “Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America.”

With each leap forward, as technologies fall out of mode, artists continue to adapt to the products of their time, while also looking to the past for inspiration. Photographic reproduction hovers somewhere “between an artisanal part and its imminent future,” says Batchen,” to take on images that are “both global and virtual.” This notion is at the core of Molly Springfield’s 2014 project in which the artist scanned a defunct kindle, whose screen was stuck on an engraving of Jane Austen (above, left). The original 1873 portrait (above, right) was designed for Evert A. Duyckink’s Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America, an encyclopedic collection of notable individuals. Not only was the nineteenth century portrait destined for reproduction and wide circulation, but it came to serve the same purpose in the digital era, on the screen of a device the original engraver could never have envisioned. This endless catch twenty-two is only further complicated by the fact that the image can also be seen via a website on a computer monitor. The history of photo-copy (and photocopy) has periodically shifted intermedial relationships to produce works that confound and defy what one expects of existing genres.

The experience of looking from one image to the next, then back again, can be summed up in four words: It is almost that.

Sam Vladimirsky

Written by

I write sometimes. But most of the time, I look at pictures of cats and rave about instant coffee brands.

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