The Lights of Lyon: Cinematography and Phototypesetting
November 13, 2014 § 2 Comments
Date of visit: September 2014
25 Rue du 1er Film,
69008 Lyon, France
Museum of Printing and Graphic Communication
13, rue de la Poulaillerie
69002 Lyon, France
Mémorial de la prison de Montluc
4 rue Jeanne Hachette
69003 Lyon, France
Lyon’s geographic position at the confluence of important European trade routes has fostered its wealth and intellectual growth since its days as the capital of Gaul. Today it is a center of gastronomy, banking, history and architecture. In the evenings, the city glows in warm lights illuminating the facades of many of the beautiful landmarks. By day visitors can experience other forms of light—projections of cinematic history, typesetting with strobe lights, enlightened French cuisine and the light of truth shone upon the dark relics of the Gestapo.
The Institute Lumière
During the late 1800’s, inventors sought ways to create the illusion of motion using still photographs. Through the efforts of Lyon residents, the Lumière brothers, that illusion was achieved, and for the first time the moving images were projected for an audience to enjoy. Their invention, the Cinematographe, a combination camera and projector, makes Lyon the birthplace of cinema.
Auguste and Louis Lumière, (lumière is ‘light’ in French) inherited a photographic heritage and wealth from their father, a manufacturer of photographic supplies. Their former family residence, Villa Lumière, now preserved as a museum was our first destination in Lyon.
We arrived at Institut Lumière on a rainy but warm September afternoon. The building is an opulent art nouveau affair with many of its period details intact. First floor galleries are devoted to a history of cinematography with displays of antique artifacts from the early attempts at image animation: shadow puppetry, magic lanterns and zoetropes. One of the Lumieres’ inspirations, Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope (1891) is included in working condition. Edison’s device was a standing wooden box with a peephole through which only one person could watch. The Lumières’ Cinematographe (1895) not only projected to audience, the hand cranking power source allowed portability.
Using their employees as ‘actors’ the brothers first film, La Sortie de usines Lumière (1894), captured a crowd of men and women leaving the nearby Lumière manufacturing plant. The brothers filmed ten such “documentary shorts” and then sold tickets for public displays in theaters. The culture of public cinema was born.
Louis turned his attention to color photography, experimenting with dyed potato flour to separate color in an additive process he named ‘autochrome’ in 1903. His ever-inventive mind moved on to experiments including huge circular panoramas and 3-D photography.
The second floor of the museum presents Lumière projects outside the field of photography. Auguste concentrated on medical inventions in response to the horrific injuries sustained by soldiers in World War I. He developed a special gauze bandage for burns (still used today) as well as a functioning prosthetic hand for amputees. (Undoubtedly the loss of a younger brother in that conflict was an influence.)
Cinema is the focus of the institute and a large modern film complex on the grounds hosts current movie showings and cultural events. After several hours at the museum, we left in search of some legendary Lyonnais food. Fortunately, the famous food hall, Les Halles du Paul Bocuse, was only about 15 minutes by foot. Paul Bocouse is known for lightening the traditional French cooking into today’s nouvelle cuisine which stresses fresh, high quality ingredients. The sleek modern hall placed us squarely back in the 21st century. We sat down at one of the food stalls to enjoy a plate of mixed oysters and a glass of wine as we observed the end-of-day gastronomical activities whirl around us.
The Museum of Printing and Graphic Communication
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Lyon emerged as an important location for Europe’s growing publishing market. A flourishing book trade and active printing community supplied rich local book collections, both public and private. To preserve this legacy printer and book historian, Maurice Audin, along with Henri-Jean Martin, chief curator at the Library of Lyon, sought and received strong support from their community. By 1964 their efforts culminated in the opening of The Museum of Printing, dedicated “to educate the broader population on the role of printing and books in the formation of Western culture”. The privately funded collection became a national museum in 2005.
We arrived at the museum on a day celebrating French cultural heritage, when all national museums are open free to the public, including foreign visitors. As part of the celebrations live book arts demonstrations were in progress throughout the establishment. (You can read a general overview of the visit on the website, printeresting.org.)
For the type obsessed read on…
Our specific intent for visiting the museum was to learn more about phototypesetting, a technology with a connection to Lyon. Although the commercial phototypesetting era lasted only from the 1960’s through 1990’s, it was a significant period of transition from hot metal to digital typography. Having very little knowledge of this technology we were fortunate to make the acquaintance of Dr. Alan Marshall, an expert in printing history and the author of Plum a la lumiere (Lead to light: Lumitype-Photon and the birth of modern graphic arts). After escorting us to a room dedicated to the history of phototypesetting he gave us a quick run down on some of the particulars of the local connection. It was a very busy day for him and we appreciated his time and expertise.
As much as photography rocked the traditional world of 19th century painting, it also had a transformational effect on the industry of typesetting. Starting in the 1860’s, inventors sought ways to use the new technology to replace the labor of metal type casting. With newspapers and magazines demanding faster and cheaper ways of typesetting, various parties in Germany, England, Japan and the US raced to achieve that goal using photography. It was not until 1894 that Hungarian Eugene Porzolt succeeded in producing the first working model. All of the early attempts were transitional technologies that in some way retrofitted existing linotype or monotype machines. Their technological improvement lay in replacing hot metal type with film and photographic paper, allowing type to made the jump from the third dimension to a flat photographic image.
While the first generation phototypesetters relied on mechanics, the second consisted of electromechanical equipment with valves, relays and other electronic devices. The first successful prototype of this version was the brainchild of two French telecommunication engineers who worked in Lyon, René Higonnet (1902 –1983) and Louis Moyroud (1914–2010). Higonnet and Moyroud, not previously involved in typesetting, were appalled when they encountered the painfully long processes used to prepare type for offset printing: typesetting, casting the type, printing the type and then photographing the printed type for a negative to make an offset plate. Surely they could find a better method in 1943!
By 1944 they had developed enough drawings and plans to apply for a patent and seek financial backing. Higgonet traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts and through a connection made via the eminent American engineer, Vannevar Bush, Higgonet met with William Garth, owner of an offset duplication company (Lithomat, later Photon). Enthusiastic about the project, Garth raised funds by forming the Graphic Arts Research Foundation, a collection of large publishers and printers interested in the cost savings that phototypesetting promised.
The Lumitype “used three essential elements in the process: a master image of the type character, a lens system to size it and a positioning system to place the characters in a line in the proper sequence”. Dr. Marshall explained that one of the problems Higonnet and Moyroud needed to overcome was the difficulty of “freezing” the image of a letter onto the photographic paper. Other attempts to develop a fast “shuttering system” to capture a sharp, crisp letter image had fallen short. Working in the US at MIT the pair adopted Harold Edgerton’s stroboscope (electronic flash) as the solution to that problem. For imaging the type they arranged negatives of the letters onto a round disc and fashioned a method to spin the disc into place at high speeds.
During the input stage, every keystroke is recorded on a memory that notes the width of each character. When each line is complete, a binary computer allocates space for justification of the line. “The signals are then sent on to the setter, at whose heart is a disc made from glass or plastic. The disc carries glyphs (in negative) arranged in concentric circles. When the character is in front of the window display, the electronic tube emits a strobe flash to expose the image through a lens (for sizing) onto a prism or mirror that moved on a track to the required escapement widths for each character. The characters were projected on photo-sensitive paper or film and then developed with chemistry.” (Frank Romano)
Lacking a typographic background, the pair naively selected a bastard version of Bodoni as the font to reproduce. Bodoni was a terrible choice because it has extremely difficult hairline serifs that were difficult to hold using photography. They finally opted for the sturdier Scotch roman style.
Higonnet and Moyroud sold the North and South American distribution rights to Garth and retained the distribution rights for the rest of the world. They demonstrated their invention in Europe in 1948 to a skeptical audience but the French type foundry, Deberney and Peignot, invested heavily in the new technology. Charles Peignot marketed the machine using the name Lumitype in 1954. A young Swiss type designer on the D&B staff, Adrian Frutiger, converted existing typefaces to Lumitype format but earned considerable fame from his original sans serif designed specifically for phototypesetting. The font, Univers, a design he had been working on since his student days, was released simultaneously in both metal and film technologies.
The Lumitype, under the brand Lumitype Photon, was presented in New York in 1949. Garth had spent over $1 million to create the prototype (named Petunia) that typeset the first book using phototypesetting, “Wonderful World of Insects” in 1953. The following year the first phototypeset newspaper, The Patriot Ledger, was printed in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Phototypesetting was not a perfect solution to making type. The letterforms tended to become thin, making pages of text look pale. The spacing tended towards tightness because the physical metal bodies of letters had disappeared, leaving the spacing determination up to the taste and skill of the individual setter. I was required to use an ancient Compugraphic phototypesetter while designing publications at the Philadelphia Museum of Art way back in the early 1980’s. A clunky affair, it had a rubbery black curtain that draped over one’s head and shoulders to create a tiny darkroom. Filmstrips of letters were exposed onto a roll of photopaper about four inches wide. Despite zero training as a typesetter, I set headlines for books and posters for the museum. Sadly my lack of training shows, the letter spacing collapsed and the exposure of the letters was hard to manage under primitive conditions (unacceptable now but the über tight setting was fairly common in that era).
In 1983, Louis Moyroud deposited all the Lumitype archives in the Printing Museum in Lyon. Moyroud and Higonnet were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1985, the year in which a new third generation of typesetting was introduced. The new machines did not use negatives or flash tubes to create a letter, rather the glyphs formed electronically on an illuminated CRT tube. That story is for another time…
Our final destination was Montluc Prison. This grim and quiet place served as a prison since 1932 but took on a more sinister role during World War 2. When the northern half of France fell under military occupation by the Germans, the south was declared a “free zone” under the Vichy government, a puppet regime. To ensure Vichy cooperation the Germans kept two million French soldiers in forced labor inside of Germany. As part of the condition for relative autonomy the Vichy authorities were required to round up Communists, deGaulle supporters, resistance fighters, political refuges, Jews and “others considered undesirable by the Nazis.” Who was left I wonder?
Montluc Prison functioned as the holding station for those arrested, where their fate and final destination was determined before exportation. After the fall of the Vichy in 1942 the Germans ramped up the activities to executions and torture interrogations, many of which were at the hands of Gestapo head, Klaus Barbie, the infamous “Butcher of Lyon”. After the war the building returned to its role as a domestic prison and later closed, only to be reopened in 2010 as a “monument of major importance.”
We were almost the only visitors in the prison museum; most opt to see the Center for Resistance and Deportation Museum closer to the city center. On the exterior there was very little to indicate the entrance but the large and imposing walls gave away the purpose for the structure.
Inside many of the cells are pictures and biographies of the men, women and children who passed through during the war. All are poignant: a group of 44 orphans that Barbie sent to Auschwitz, mothers and children split up and shipped off to different destinations, the Catholic nun Élise Rivet shipped to Ravensbrück concentration camp and executed for hiding refugees and resistance materials.
While it is not a pleasant visit, it is important to keep the reminders of the cruelty of war close by. Unfortunately such prisons and tortures continue today, although not on the popular radar and easily forgotten by the distractions of pretty culture and the constantly shifting news stream. There is much to morn in this place, but also one cannot help but be impressed by the conviction of the resistance fighters who fought to free France.
Sources and Acknowledgements
Dr. Alan Marshall, September 20, 2014.
Andrew Boag, “Monotype and phototypesetting”
Frank Romano, “The Phototypesetting Era”
The Journal of the American Printing History Association
Volume XXIII, Number 2, 2003.
All photography, Eric Allen
with the exception of the Higgonet and Moulard from
Kevin Donley, “Louis Moulard: 1914-2010