I spent all day yesterday in the UC Berkeley Art History library researching third century Roman portraiture, particularly Marcus Aurelius Carinus and Claudius Gothicus. Mostly I used a wonderful set of books by Klaus Fittschen and Paul Zanker, the Katalog der römischen Porträts in den Capitolinischen Museen. My least favorite aspect of these fine works is their usability. Despite being printed in the early 1980′s (and costing about $500 per volume), the photos do not appear with the discussion of the sculptures. Most of the photos are together in a separate bound volume entitled “Plates.” Art historians are themselves rather bound to tradition and I can’t imagine the reason they have stuck with this practice, once necessary because of limitations of printing — putting a photo in a book was once a big deal. I’m reasonably sure that since you can now create your own personal hardback photo book and have it printed in a run of a single copy for about $40 that no printing limitations exist to placing those photos right there in the text where they’re relevant.
The use of the term “plate” for a photo in a book dates back to the late 1800s when photography was actually done with plates. Starting around 1850, photography consisted of smearing a plate of glass with Collodion Solution - a messy substance with a lot of nasty chemicals in it – and then after the Collodion had partly coagulated, dipping the plate into a silver nitrate solution to produce a photosensitive silver halide coating on the plate. A decade or so later some bright chemist found a way to streamline the process by suspending all the gooey, smelly stuff in a single emulsion that plates could be coated with. That basic approach stuck for decades until George Eastman and his Eastman Dry Plate Company invented the film negative, which was no longer a plate.
During those golden years of plate photography, authors of books with photos in them used the term plate in their text to direct readers to the image: see Plate 1. Plate was a natural term for the printing world since picture printing was done by engraving an image onto metal plates. Attach the plate to a cylinder in a printing press and you get mass production of book images. Since plate was more relevant to producers than consumers of books, the term generally gave way to “Photo 1″ or “Figure 1″ over the years, except for books about art, which seemed to want to remind us that a quality picture in a book was no ordiary matter and should be celebrated with respectful legacy terminology.
Photographer friends of mine over the last year seem to have been caught up in the gooey emulsion of plates, amusing since most of their photography involves no physical media at all – not in the recording process nor in publishing and presentation. These plates are made of pixels. I chuckled at this puzzling posturing, possibly born of a yearning for a past never experienced by the yearner. It appeared my friends had wet plate envy. Perhaps if Pentax could add a smell module to digicams we’d all feel a bit more like we were really doing something when we employ photons to prepare pixels.
Plate is a nice tight word though. It pops off your tongue with more punch than foe toe…, which seems to take forever to pass the lips. You’re never sure when photo starts or ends, which is certainly why the masses opt for picture instead. People pay attention to “P” words; they have impact. But for photographers a picture is what their children draw for them in grade school. Plate addresses this problem respectably, and I’ll pester pals who put forth plate no more. Power to the plate people.