On the brink of extinction, the collotype survives and thrives in Kyoto
At ONWARD we have the opportunity to work with some of the most innovative and exciting photography organizations on the planet. One of this year’s ONWARD Compé sponsors, the Benrido Atelier in Kyoto, Japan, is a particular favorite. The Benrido Atelier is a collotype printing workshop that has been active for over 110 years, making everything from reproductions of important Japanese national treasures to work by contemporary photographers. We sat down with the company’s CEO Takumi Suzuki to talk about their annual Hariban Award photography competition and all things collotype.
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ONWARD: Tell us a little bit about the Hariban Award and how the idea began.
Takumi Suzuki: Some artists are aware of the collotype process, but only a small number of those who are familiar have ever actually had the opportunity to try it out with their own work. I talked to Simon Baker, Curator of Photography and International Art at the Tate Modern in London, and he put me on to the idea of a competition. As an organization we’ve been active for over a century, so we have the resources to make this happen-it’s a rare and incredible opportunity for a single artist to reimagine their work and spend meaningful time in Kyoto.
It’s great for us as well. The more artists are using the collotype process the more it becomes part of the conversation in the visual arts, increasing awareness and encouraging curiosity. It all culminates in May, where we hold an exhibition of the artists’ prints as part of Kyotographie, an international photography festival here in Kyoto.
ONWARD: How collaborative is the relationship between the winning photographer and the printers at Benrido?
TS: The winning artist spends two weeks with us in Kyoto, so we get to know one another fairly well! There are three runs, or sessions, of printing over the two weeks to create perfect final prints. We always try and do what the artists want to achieve their vision, but we might also make suggestions or throw around ideas about how to use the collotype process best for their work specifically. So in that way it’s quite collaborative.
ONWARD: The collotype process has been around for quite some time and is increasingly rare to find and difficult to produce. How do you pass down these skills to younger generations?
TS: We do as much as we can to keep the process alive and thriving! I personally run a blog in Japanese about what’s going on at the Atelier, mostly for the purpose of educating the printers and as a window for the outside world. All of the head printers have over 10 years of experience, but most came here never having worked with collotypes before. We also have a number of younger assistants, many of whom have studied printmaking in school, and this gives them the opportunity to become familiar with the process so that they can hopefully take the reins and pass their knowledge down one day too.
Every year on July 1st we celebrate our anniversary by having each employee bring in one of their own photographs to be printed as a collotype. This lets everyone have hands on time with the process in relation to their own work. We conclude with an exhibition of the photographs, which is always a success.
ONWARD: How have you incorporated digital processes into work at the Atelier?
TS: We now use mostly digital negatives made on an inkjet printer as the base for most of the work we produce. These are used to expose the plates that lay the pigment ink. The digital printing allows us to layer color in CMYK style rather than flat, wood-block like color. It’s perfect for photographic images because of their nuance and tonal variation. We want to utilize both of these techniques for their best qualities, so we are constantly striving to combine the two and achieve a great final print.
ONWARD: What makes the process so special for a contemporary photographer?
TS: The options that photographers have for how they make their prints are getting more limited as older processes become harder to find and more expensive. Efficiency is key, so sometimes the really amazing benefits of older processes are overlooked. We want to change that and keep the collotype in the fold, as it is a great way for photographers to make their work in completely different ways and find alternative expressions. Everything about collotypes is desirable, from the thick pigment ink we use for vivid color to the negative-to-plate process that achieves remarkably nuanced resolution and clarity.
ONWARD: What does the future hold for Benrido and the Hariban Award?
TS: We’re really excited (and a little bit nervous) for the next Hariban Award cycle. We were worried about how much we could accomplish in just two weeks with last year’s winner Awoiska Van Der Molen, but it proved to be a huge success. Having already been an experienced silver printer, we shared a common respect for the printing process. The combination of her work and the temple in which it was shown during Kyotographie 2015 was really special, so we can’t wait to see what this year’s photographer has in mind.
I think that the people who are interested in the competition inherently have quality work like Awoiska’s, just based on the specificity of the collotype and our workshop. What we are really hoping for is that the competition jurors will select a photographer whose work will present not only a fantastic opportunity for them to think about their work in a different way but also challenge us with ideas and aesthetics that we’ve never considered before.
The Benrido Atelier
The 2014 Hariban Award competition catalogue is available for purchase in the United States! Now you can bring Kyoto to your doorstep with a gorgeous hand-bound and collotype printed book.
Discover the collotype catalogue »
Established in Kyoto in 1905, the Benrido Collotype Atelier brings over a century of experience to image-making. As one of the world’s few remaining producers of collotypes, Benrido offers rare access to this lost craft, providing opportunities for today’s photographers to collaborate with master artisan printers in making singularly beautiful museum-quality prints for exhibition and display.
The Hariban Award Competition
Presented by the Benrido Collotype Atelier, the Hariban Award, now in its second year, combines a 150-year-old analog technique with the new vision of digital-age photography. Professionals and amateurs alike are invited to submit monochromatic photographs for a chance to win this remarkable award. The winner will receive an expenses-paid trip to the ancient city of Kyoto to participate in the production of a collotype portfolio, which will be exhibited as an associated program of Kyotographie 2016.
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