Mezzotint at Valley City State University

Copper mezzotint plates of Linda Whitney's.

Copper mezzotint plates of Linda Whitney’s.

Early this morning I restructured my schedule to respect the snow that had melted and turned to ice overnight on Eisenhower’s Interstate System (the I-94 part). This meant that instead of driving up to the Chester Fritz Library at the University of North Dakota for research, I decided to stay put and spend the morning in Valley City. After inhaling an omelette with Molly at Vicky’s Viking Room, we drove over to Valley City State University to visit Linda Whitney, professor of art at said university. Linda is an accomplished artist, and she has been working with copper plates and creating mezzotints.

This evening, while revisiting the White Stripes “Get Behind Me Satan,” I set into a bit of research on the origins of mezzotint. The name Martin Schongauer (c 1448 to February 2, 1491) is bound to the history of the mezzotint, and he arguably is its principle founder.

The actual art of mezzotinting (now a verb) requires a sharp degree of skill, as artists often were charged with producing as exact a copy as possible of an original, painted work of art. Perhaps one of the greatest known mezzotint prints in America is that of Ben Franklin, a mezzotint created from a painting, thus popularizing the image. And this pushes an individual to consider how a standardized image could provide a large group of people with a common icon to rally around. We have mezzotint to thank for that.

So without going too far into the history of Schongauer (note: in 1491, he did die on the same day that Punk Archaeology in 2013 is happening — it will be awesome), here is a 2-minute audio-video from January 28, 2013, of Linda Whitney explaining the mezzotint process in her printing studio at Valley City State University.

A famous mezzotint of Franklin by Johann Will after a painting by Cochin.

A famous mezzotint of Franklin by Johann Will after a painting by Cochin.

Linda said the mezzotinting keeps her busy, and she often puts a year’s worth of master artist labor into each copper plate — one mezzotint rock after another, to get the precise etch into the plate, so the plate takes on the correct amount of ink, and transfers it to paper to make an intelligible image.

I pressed her with a question to get some kind of hourly grasp of what this type of labor meant. I asked her if she was putting in 40 hours/week on each mezzotint. She said it was more like 60-to-65 hours/week. I thought about that on the drive over from Valley City to Fargo today, and the rough equation went like this: if a large copper mezzotint plate takes about a year’s worth of work, that means 65 hours X 52 weeks = 3,380 hours. Now take 3,380 times the hourly amount of a master craftsman’s wage (ahem, or -woman, or craftsperson), and only then do we start to understand what these copper plates are worth, now and throughout time. To run an analogy between yesterday’s mezzotint and our ability today to digitize any image ever, the mezzotint was important back in the day because one singular image could be reprinted in the same way over and over again, on numerous sheets of paper. Thus, the same idea could be communicated to a large swath of individuals (this could be important for matters of theology like in Schongauer’s day, but also, for example, in matters of technology and crop rotation and philosophy and paper money and so on — stuff that made and makes societies run smoothly).

One more note: Linda is also one of my aunts.


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