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HomeDesign BlogHistoryRotogravure Printing & Photo Retouching – Interview with Martin

Rotogravure Printing & Photo Retouching – Interview with Martin

05 Oct 2019 | Tags ,
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Austin: Okay. So today is October 1st and I’m sitting here with my good friend, Martin, and I wanted to talk to him about his experience in the printing world. Would you mind telling me how you got into the printing job or the printing world?

Martin: The way I got into it was basically I always wanted to be a painter and when it was time for me to finish school and then go to art school, one of my parents, who was the director of the big art school in Bremen and he would be, sort of, guiding me over the years and, sort of, a little bit and he suggested that basically, in those days, in the late ’60s, early ’70s, no German art school would be teaching what I wanted to learn, like realistic-style painting and stuff like that. And that I should instead do an apprenticeship as a retoucher of photographs because I’d be learning how to paint extremely realistically there and I’d always then…If the one, the thing with the painting doesn’t work out, I’d have something to fall back on to earn some money. The thing is I specialized in the retouching, and color retouching, and color negatives retouching, and [inaudible 00:01:44] retouching, and stuff like that. And the pay was so good that for years, I didn’t do any painting at all. I just earned my money with it. And then, when I went to New Zealand, I went into more wider applications of the printing in offset and so on.

Austin: And so, when you were working in…what was the name of the company you worked for in Germany, by the way?

Martin: The company I learned at as an apprenticeship was called Broschek. They still exist. They have been in existence for many years. They used to be one of the big companies said to gravure printing that makes, in those days, like extremely long runs of printing. Because, in those days, offset was very limited that the plates didn’t last very long and we didn’t…and gravure printing, and so you have copper cylinders that are chromed and so, you can do runs of, I don’t know, four or five million copies without ruining the cylinders.

Austin: Wow. And what were your primary markets? What were they printing?

Martin: We’d be printing mainly mail-order catalogs. In those days before the internet, there were some mail-order companies in Germany that, sort of, had four catalogs a year, one for each season and they’d have about 500, 600 pages and they have, I think they would be distributed in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. And so, I think they’d be printing like, I don’t know, a number of million copies each. So, it was actually divided amongst different printing companies because one couldn’t even do that. Like, we’d be having, you know, like for one run, we’d have the machines running for six weeks or something like that without stopping, yeah. Day and night, yeah.

Austin: And was it in color or it was black?

Martin: Yeah, it was the color, yeah. It was in full color.

Austin: And how many employees were working in that shop would you say?

Martin: Ooh. A few hundred. It was a large company.

Austin: And you were doing, at that time, you were retouching photos that would be…

Martin: Well, what we were doing was called retouching photos. It wasn’t actually that. It was part of it. Like, sometimes, we would, instead of having photographs that, you know, for editorial reasons needed to be extended by two centimeters on the right-hand side or something like that. And then you’d paint all that in, you know, by hand so that you couldn’t tell the difference between what was original photograph and what was painted. But the main thing was really with the color corrections in those days because the way color separations were done, they had inherent mistakes in certain colors which these days nobody even knows that, you know, if you do that with filters, that is what happens because these days, computers and scanners will mathematically or digitally correct those color mistakes, yeah.

Interviewer: What did you call the machine? A gravure press?

Martin: It was gravure, yeah. It was engraved. Unlike in an offset where you have the…as a flat print, you know, and then, you have book, what’s it called? Book…

Austin: Letterpress or…?

Martin: Letterpress, yeah, where, you know, it’s like a stamp where the, you know, raised part prints. In gravure, it’s the other way round. It’s the engraved part that is filled with ink and then prints and it’s filled with ink, like it runs through ink, very, very fluid, it’s almost like water but it’s just… It was called toluene. It’s a highly poisonous chemical.

Austin: So not a soy-based, biological…

Martin: No. That didn’t exist in those days, no. And so, yeah. It would be running, the cylinder would be running in this ink, and then, there would be a, what’s it called? A steel bar that scrapped off all the ink that was on the upper part of the printing cylinder and just left it in the engraved bits. And then partly through the rotational speed, the ink would be flying against the paper and partly through…

(Technical Issue / Recording Paused)

Austin: Part Two. Okay, so you were talking about this machine, this brand new press. So, can you describe for us, would it be, like, similar to a four-color offset press that it was blending colors, or it was doing more spot color, or how did…?

Martin: No, no, it was basically exactly the same as a four-color offset press, the way of getting color pictures or color things printed. I haven’t worked in this for such a long time. I’ve forgotten some of the expressions.

Austin: What year…?

Martin: The screen looks different because, in the gravure printing, the dots are not different size from the area but from the depth of the thing [SP]. So, it’s got more ink because it’s deeper, but the single spots are actually the same size. And the presses would be, I had, I think the ones at where I was working had 10 color stations. Each one of them would be bought, I don’t know, I think the cylinders were about two meters wide or a little bit more than two meters wide. And they would be running through there and then go up and get dried before it went into the next color phase. So the whole machine…

Austin: And what was the sheet size?

Martin: It was on a roll, and these rolls were down in the basement. They were then accelerated. When one roll comes to an end, the other one, the next one was accelerated to rotate at the same speed. And then it would, sort of, against it, finish one, and hopefully, run through without tearing. So, the whole thing would be a continuous paper bend going through…

Austin: But, I mean, the size of, like, a…like, what was the width? Like, because I know, like, a web press that they print newspapers on is like, the sheet is super wide.

Martin: Yeah, now they were bigger than those.

Austin: Really?

Austin: They were about two or two and a half meters wide. And each station was about one and a half stories high. And the whole machine was about 100 meters long, 120 meters long.

Austin: Is this something Heidelberg produced or there was…? Do you remember the manufacturer of the…?

Martin: Yeah, I think they might have been Heidelberg. I think they were the biggest producers of printing presses in those days, yeah.

Austin: Yeah, I think they, sort of, still are. I mean, they have more competition now, but they still seem to be the standard, the Mercedes of the printing presses. And so, you were basically more on the pre-press side.

Martin: Yeah, I was in the pre-press, yeah.

Austin: You had talked to me some weeks ago when we were having lunch about this, having this overview of the entire production process and being able to, sort of, predict possible bottlenecks in the process and how to avoid them. And having a pre-press person like yourself communicating with the finishing guy at the very end. Sort of, you said you had developed a skill for that. Was that after your apprenticeship in your second…?

Austin: Well, during my apprenticeship, we would go through all the different departments. You know, we’d be spending a month in, you know, the ones making the cylinders, or in the book bindery, or, you know, stuff like that. So we’d be doing the photography, so we’d be spending, we’d have an overview of every single part of the operation, but not much experience. Just having an understanding of what happens where and stuff like that. And I guess that was helpful for me when I came to New Zealand where the companies were much smaller and they were offset solely, basically. And, so it was easier to get an understanding of each department and what they were doing, yeah. And so they were basically one-man operations. Each department or maybe two or three people maximum. So, maybe the printers were more people [inaudible 00:04:31].

Austin: And the plates were being made in-house, right?

Martin: I would be making the plates, yeah.

Interviewer: And, can you describe that process a little bit about…?

Interviewee: Okay, yeah, maybe…

Interviewer: Let me ask you this, if you had a photo that you were retouching, what is it on? Is it on paper, or on a film, or how, you know, I don’t…

Interviewee: Depends on, yeah, usually, it would come in either…a photograph would either come in as a slide, sort of, a transparency, a due [SP] transparency, so they’d be larger. They’d be 8 by 10 inches, or 4 by 6, or something like that. All of them are color prints because, in those days, you did…like, each company, its printing company… Like, if you had an advertisement to go in, say for, you know, some whiskey or something like that and that advertisement was to go in 5, or 6, or 10 different magazines, starting week number so on, so on, then each of the printing companies that printed these would have to make their own color separations and plates.

And so you’d be sending out 10 or whatever equal color prints or slides. Usually, it was no space, it was very difficult to combine into the transparencies, to combine text and so on onto the transparency. So, then the companies would have to combine text and pictures themselves. And so that was less control for the advertising agency. So for the advertiser, so they preferred to have prints made. And so they would send out 20 or 10 different equal prints to the different companies.

Interviewer: But, so let’s say you get one of these transparencies or one of these prints, and then you have to make an adjustment.

Interviewee: Well, what they would be doing then, I would be putting this in a process camera, sort of, a large camera. So, sort of, like you have a vertical one that, sort of, like takes sizes of up to, I don’t know, 3 by 4 feet or something like that of the original. And, then you have got horizontal canvas and you’ve got a much larger… They’d be, sort of, like in two rooms, where you’d have the part where you put the film, the negative onto the camera in a different room than where the…

Interviewer: Protecting.

Interviewee: …yeah, where the protecting part was. And you would then make color separations by putting color filters. So you’d make four different negatives of each of these color pictures, a yellow, magenta, cyan, and a black one, by using the opposite color in the color circle. But the problem is that on one hand, you have… so theoretically, that would work out exactly, you would get exactly, then, if you put the green filter on it, you would get exactly the magenta part of the photograph theoretically. But in an actual effect, the [inaudible 00:07:41] is an ink, basically, and the other is light. So, you’ve got a light going and it doesn’t add up. So you have certain mistakes and certain colors especially, sort of, in skin tones, and browns, and greens and it would muddy the colors, mainly. And so we’d have to make corrections, then, on these negatives, these four-color negatives that we’d be [crosstalk 00:08:08].

Interviewer: And how would you make a correction? What does that mean?

Interviewee: Well, what we did in those days, we would take certain points of the picture, say skin tone and the face, you know, the jersey that the person was wearing, you know, or the background and the green, you know, like even blue water or something like that. And we’d define those points by taking the original color negative or print and with a densitometer, measure the proportions of each color and [inaudible 00:08:46]. So the proportion of yellow, magenta, cyan, and black. And then we would take the negative and measure it in the same spots the density of it, and then have a converter that would say, like, when we convert this negative to a positive, then we’d have a density of so and so there. And, then you’d find out, like, it doesn’t match up and so you’d have to make corrections either by reducing some of the density in the color, in the black and white negative or by adding ink to it and increasing the density.

Interviewer: And then that would affect the screens, the plates you make?

Interviewee: Well, the screens, it would only be screened afterwards. And also for gravure printing, they were still halftones. They were, sort of, like, they were a continuous tone. They were not halftones and they were only screened and then converted into halftones after we were finished. So, there is an offset printing you do that’s straight away. When you do the negatives, they base their screen negatives already at the different angles for the different colors.

Interviewer: And the plates were some sort of plastic or…?

Interviewee: Well, where I was working, those plates were cylinders, they were chrome cylinders. No, they were copper cylinders.

Interviewer: And, then you would wrap the plate around, right?

Interviewee: No, no, they would make it, then they would [inaudible 00:10:14] negatives or the positives, they would put films… What do you call it? You’d put a film for the whole size of the cylinder, you know, so they’d be, I don’t know, maybe 24 or 36 pages of the magazine on that cylinder according to how it’s gonna be folded, and cut, and stuff like that. And then they would make of those films, they would make gelatin negatives again. And those gelatin things would be stuck onto the copper cylinder and the copper cylinder would then be etched in acid. So there [crosstalk 00:10:56] there was less density. It would be etching deeper and so on. And then after that was done, if they had long runs, they would be drawn to the cylinders to keep them [crosstalk 00:11:11].

Interviewer: And so that meant that the cylinders were only valid for that project. And then they had to be…

Interviewee: Yeah, yeah, afterwards, you couldn’t use them anymore. They’d be pulling the chrome off, and then the copper would be, it would be regalvanized so to add a little bit more. It was a very expensive process and, as you can imagine, like, if you made a mistake on any of those things then, it would be a very, very costly fuck up, very costly. I remember, during my apprenticeship, we went through the departments, you know, with three or four apprentices, and were shown different… And we were shown in the part [SP] where they were, just before they made these gelatin films, exposing the finished films under the gelatin the films. One of the… it happened to be the thing that mostly at the title page of that 4.8 million prints catalog on it. And one of the apprentices pointed out and said, “Shouldn’t that be spring ’73 and not spring ’72?” And they went, “Oh, fuck.” And then one of the apprentices sees that, you know, because if you’re too involved, you tend to overlook these kinds of things, you know. So it’s, you know, for an outsider to come in and see that, you know.

Interviewer: Well, I think in my limited experience and my customers and audience, I mean, there’s many printing websites that don’t do a proof. You know, they basically have, and it’s very common here in Germany, they just have a disclaimer that says, you check this box, you agree that you have thoroughly looked through your artwork. And if you want us to check it, you’ve got to pay €10 and we’ll take the time to look at it and then we’ll email you a PDF. Well, we do that just as a service, because, I mean, I do it on one hand for the customers, but mostly I do it for my team and myself because nobody likes to do the same job twice. I mean, it just doesn’t feel good, right? But, even still, even, you know, in the thousands of jobs that we do a year, you know, and even though, like, you send the proof to the person and you say, “Please take a moment, read the text, double-check. You know, we’re busy people.” “Yeah, yeah. No, it’s good. Just run it.” You know, and then you run it, you ship it. And then you find out about it, you know, then you get the next email, “Oh, actually, the phone number’s wrong.” And then the, sort of, perspective is, it’s our fault. Or we’re supposed to make it right, you know, somehow.

Luckily, after a number of years, I came up with a program that I call the Whoops program. And that says, and this is completely a service is, we’ll reproduce the job for our production cost, okay, so you don’t pay the cost plus our markup. We do run it again. We have to go through the same basic work again, you know, still have to, you know, check the new file, and, you know, set up the press, and do all that stuff. But I guess the idea is, I mean, to avoid sending off a customer completely pissed off, you know, “Ah!” you know, and then they never come back, sort of, thing. Anyways, I’m not here to talk about myself so much. So, okay, so this was the gravure press and what years that was in, when was that in?

Interviewee: It was early to mid ’70s, ’72 to ’75 or something like that I worked on that.

Interviewer: And that was in Bremen?

Interviewee: It was in Hamburg.

Interviewer: In Hamburg. Wow, and then you moved to New Zealand, and you worked in smaller offset shops. And you were still…

Interviewee: Well, at first I was self-employed retouching transparencies for a couple of years, yeah.

Interviewer: So like freelancing to different print shops?

Interviewee: Yeah, well, mainly to advertising agencies or photographers, yeah, and actually had nothing to do with the print shops, usually.

Interviewer: So why wasn’t the printer managing that part? Why were the agencies? Because they wanted to have a say over the look of it?

Interviewee: Well, mostly because a customer would come…most, I’d say 90% of what we did in printing industry was either straight advertising or it was based on advertising. Every magazine is basically based on the income through advertising. So, a client would go to an advertising agency to have, you know, like, do their campaign, do their looks, do the logos, and then do advertising, and, you know, advertisements for them, and stuff like that. And in order to ensure that in all the magazines that would print the advertisement, they have the same…

Interviewer: Consistency.

Interviewee: …consistently so that I would be working for the advertising agency directly and I would then be sending it off to the separate printing companies to do their own color separation.

Interviewer: Okay, that makes sense. So you were freelancing doing… Okay, I’m still not, you gotta understand, like, for people, my generation, I’m still not completely clear on how they would deliver. So they would give you one of these transparencies you’re talking about or a print, a physical print?

Interviewee: Yeah, I often had, say if you have…

Interviewer: I’m trying to paint a picture, like, are you with a brush painting on top of a physical print?

Interviewee: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

interviewer: And then they’re using these…

Interviewee: Or some transparency or etching with acids and stuff like that.

Interviewer: So if you are on an etching, how would you…? What’s the medium here being used? Also, you’re…

Interviewee: A color film, yeah.

Interviewer: Okay. And then after the piece, the graphic is edited, they’re taking a new photograph with this camera you described?

Interviewee: Yes. Yeah.

Interviewer: I mean, what we will…

Interviewee: Then we can make a color separations of that one, yeah. What I would be doing when retouching those photographs was, basically, what you do with Photoshop these days. It was all just done by hand with a brush and a scalpel and stuff like that. So, [crosstalk 00:18:04] do it, yeah.

Interviewer: Yeah, and that’s what I’m trying, that’s the picture I’m trying to paint. Because when someone is growing up nowadays, and doing everything digitally, and they have no appreciation. I mean, we lose touch with, really, how much work, you know, goes into every step of the process, and how lucky we are today. And even in today’s world, things still get screwed up. And it’s still complicated. And probably there’s newer, new hurdles, new problems that have come up because of the technology. Let me ask you this. When digital printing started to happen, do you feel like it has a place? Or do you feel like it…? Do you have an opinion at all based on the work you had done and this kind of new age of digital printing coming out?

Interviewee: Well, my own experience with, you know, obviously, for me, it was natural to, then, to, sort of, go into learning Photoshop. And I was actually testing for a company I was working for. I was testing the very first test versions of Photoshop before it was actually for sale. And my boss wanted my opinion on it. And I worked with it. It was, you know, like in those days, like, there were slow computers. And, Macintosh was still the box thing, you know? And I had a little black and white picture of something, and I made some alterations to it. And then, we head downstairs, we printed it onto film, you know, as a positive film, but a screen, yeah, a screen print. And I think the picture itself was about, I don’t know, 5 by 10 centimeters or something like that, maximum. And I think after I had made the corrections for the Macintosh to actually then process my input and actually, sort of like, work out, you know, the changes that it needed to be doing, that took a half an hour to an hour or something like that, and it was just black and white. It wasn’t even in color, and then actually, to print that thing out would take another hour or two. And, you know, it was so complicated that my advice to my boss was, “Forget about it. Digital corrections of pictures is never going to work. Those are bookkeeping machines. Computers should be used for bookkeeping.” I was slightly off in my opinion.

Interviewer: Well, but I can sympathize with the inefficiency in early technologies. It’s like that with everything, you know, there’s the people who have to, sort of, bear the brunt of frustration of, you know, we’ve been doing it this way for 30 years, or however long and this new thing isn’t quite there, you know.

Interviewee: There was a lot of problems in, sort of, like going from the conventional to the digital, by not so much the technology, but that all of a sudden, different people would be making decisions on how to do something who actually had no background in the technicalities of that. And so that I remember, in those days, I’d be getting finished color separations, and, you know, ready to put onto plates, but I had no originals, I had no original negatives, so I couldn’t make any corrections on it. And if something was wrong, I could only phone the customer and said like, “They have to make this differently, the designer has to do this differently.” And the designer would say, “What the fuck for?” Because they didn’t know, you know, certain things in printing that you need to take care of otherwise, it’s never going to work out properly.

Interviewer: Yeah, and that continues today. Because, I mean, sadly to say it, but any kid who downloads a cracked version of Photoshop and, you know, puts a logo together and, you know, starts to…I mean, a lot of people today are quick to call themselves, “Oh, I’m a designer,” you know, “I’m a filmmaker,” you know. And they’re still, on the one side, you know, there’s something to be said for the kind of, you know, bravado it takes to, sort of, identify yourself, and, you know, fake it till you make it. I mean, that’s one side, but then what you’re saying is completely true is then you end up with people, and I’m guilty of this as well, being in a position where you’re making pretty important decisions and you don’t have the necessary expertise to really have a clear perspective. I mean, in my early days as a freelancer and being self-employed, I did a lot of websites for people, for small businesses, and individuals. And I would sell that, you know, I would say, “Yeah, I can build websites.” And the truth was, I mean, I could, you know, customize WordPress, and make graphics, but the truth is I wasn’t a programmer, you know, I wasn’t a coder.

And so it happened a few times where I had sold a deal, wrote the contract, got paid. And then after working on the project for two months, we came to a point where the customer’s asking me to do something technically, I don’t have the capability of doing, you know. I need the website to have this sort of PHP function, or JavaScript function, or whatever it was. And I would either hope, if I still had money left from the project, I could bring in maybe an outside person to do that piece of it. But, I mean, that eventually led me to getting out of that world, because although I like doing it, and I’m interested in it, and there are aspects of it that I’m good at, I wasn’t an all-encompassing, you know, complete web solution kind of guy. And, yeah, so I think, with the printing world, it’s no different because we’re selling printing online. So we also don’t even, you know, we’re not even sitting in a room with the customer. And very, very seldom do we even have a phone conversation with the customer. So we get the files via email, we look at them, we make proofs, we interpret what we believe they, you know, meant to do, and we were welcoming to all our customers, but we have such a wide range. We have many advertising agencies with super professional Photoshop experts, Illustrator experts, went to art school, you know, the whole thing. But then we’ve also got, you know, the, sort of, DIY person who, you know, watched a couple of tutorials and, those people sending us their files, and us trying to be accommodating to that wide range of expertise is challenging. Sometimes, you know, so.

Interviewee: I think, from what I see, I haven’t worked on this for a long time and I haven’t been using Photoshop for quite some time, but I think, from what I see, the software has improved a lot as well. Like, I remember once was one of the things that we had problems with was like, on the one hand, like, all of a sudden it was the designers who would be, sort of, like specifying, you know, colors, and text, and what kind of typeface, which they did before, but with the printed plates we made. And so like, for instance, I remember talking to the department head of the designers about it and said like, “These guys, all of a sudden, they need to know a lot more technical stuff than they ever did before.” And the guy said, “No, I don’t want them to know that, because it curbs their creativity.” And I remember being totally fucked off about it, but I can also see his point, but it’s also a two-sided thing.

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