Hi All!! So happy to have just joined! Hopeing to pick some brains on my journey.. first question for you - does anyone here know what a ' Photo Typeface' is - I 've seen it mentioned on fontsinuse.com when researching font histories - and I can't find a definition on google or anywhere for that matter. I've also seen the term Photo-lettering - and I'm just clueless - please help??
Photo Composition: This refers to keyboard-based phototypesetting machines, used mainly for text but sometimes for headlines. There were many brands, each with its own proprietary font format consisting of a photographic negative of a complete character set imaged on a plastic (sometimes glass) plate, disk, or film strip.
Photo Process Lettering (other terms were also used): This refers to phototypesetting done with a machine that used contact printing or enlargement printing of characters one at a time onto photographic paper, used for display or headline typesetting. There were some proprietary formats (such as Photo Lettering's glass plate system, used only in their office in New York City), but most machines used a more or less standard 2" film strip reel format. These were usually called "film fonts" or (unhelpfully) "alphabets".
The first wave of digital fonts in the 1970s (CRTronic, Digitek, etc.) used various methods to burn glyph shapes onto light-sensitive paper, such as arrays of miniature LEDs or beams of light directed by rapidly-moving mirrors.
For those of you who want to go deep into this, and I mean a mind-boggling bottomless abyss, there is Frank Romano’s History of the Phototypesetting Era.
One reason, I suppose, is that it is a complicated history. As Mark and Nick allude, there were hundreds of phototype machines produced over this short stretch, most of which required their own font formats. But this transition was super important, both in terms of typesetting (size agnostic, spacing flexibility, effects, etc.) and type design (there was an explosion of new typefaces, many of which never made it to digital).
* Phototype is so forgotten that spellcheck doesn't even recognize it as a word, suggesting "prototype" instead.
I see that this book is not only out of print, but used copies appear not to be easy to find. There is material online to at least give glimpses into some of this history, though.
I started in the late '70s in the middle of that era, but I don't remember hearing designers using the term phototype. I'm not sure many of us thought about the processes behind the paste-up galleys we got back from the type houses. Instead, it was simply the way we were taught to do things.
It's been quite some time since I was in design school, so I can't be sure what's taught about that period. However, I do interact with many formally educated young designers. I've not noticed them being unaware of the paste-up era, even when phototype isn't in their vocabularies. They're mostly aware that graphic design production involved cutting and pasting up type. They're even less clear about what came before paste-up, besides knowing it often involved metal and (the now-trendy) letterpress.
My experience is that design schools spend a great deal of time on typography, but the emphasis is on using typography as a component of graphic design. The history of type technology is quickly covered but mostly ignored in favor of what's relevant in the present. Perhaps this is similar to carpenters knowing a great deal about nails and screws while knowing relatively little about their history or how they were made over the years.
I had access to an AM typesetting machine back then, a rather low-end system. It used a zoom lens to change sizes. We discovered that the focus was better when going from a larger to a smaller point size than it was going from a smaller to a larger size. So we routinely inserted a dummy point size change to a larger size whenever increasing the point size. For instance, in going from 10 pt. to 14 pt., we'd insert a command to change the point size to 36 first. This made 14 pt. sharper than going directly from 10 up to 14.
Compugraphic machines were better in this regard because they used discreet lenses (on a rotating turret). It was worth having a limited number of sizes compared to AM's zoom system just to get sharper type. (The AM allowed any size from 4 pt. to 72 pt. in half-point increments; the Compugraphic had eight discreet sizes from 6 to 72. Or something like that. I could be misremembering the exact upper and lower limits.)
The thing that struck me about digital typesetting when I first saw it (for example, the Linotron CRT system, c. 1980) was how sharp the output was compared to systems based on film-negative fonts.
Even in the days when I was working largely with metal type (“hot type”), with Monotype machines or foundry type, I found the need to set headlines in fonts I did not have. So I turned to film type, which generally was divided into two categories: headline setters, such as the PhotoTypositor, made by the Visual Graphics Corporation, or the (better) Berthold Staromat, and text composition systems, such as those by Lumitype-Photon, Compugraphic, Mergenthaler Linotron, Berthold, Alphatype, and Varityper.
Buying film-set headline type was expensive and it wasn’t amenable to someone like me, who liked to change his mind. So I found a hack. When, around 1979, small, high-quality photocopiers became relatively inexpensive, I acquired one from Konica, which had excellent acuity. With the copier, I could could copy alphabets from Dan Solo’s books and my own collection of repros, then paste them up as needed. I made as many copies as I needed the most-used letters. I became quite good and fast at cutting out and spacing this type and I made numerous book and LP covers with this method. One thing I noticed, though, was that the toner would weaken over time, so I would have to call a repairman to fix it. I saw that he would punch in some codes on the numeric pad and voilà, the toner would get back to full strength. So after a couple of visits, I paid him $100 cash to teach me the codes and show me how to clean the inside wires. Attached is an elaborate one—all paste-up type from photocopies. Did anyone else use this method?
Lettera 1–4, 1954–1972, Image: Letterform Archive
Dedicated stat cameras were generally vertical machines, with copy board at the bottom and the lens and media holder above. The quality of the optics varied quite a lot and to shoot a book, especially one with a stubborn spine, you had to place a heavy glass over it in order to flatten the book, which didn’t always work well. The superior cameras were horizontal, in which the camera was housed in a darkroom, with the lens protruding outward; the image holder was a vacuum frame that moved forward and backward on a track. These were used to make negatives for offset printing (and color separations, too), but also made superior stats. The problem was that these frames could not hold thick books (no 1923 ATF catalogs, unless you were willing to cut the pages).
My Konica photocopier could reduce and enlarge, but only within a restricted range, about 60% to 165%, as I recall. For further reductions, you could reduce the image and then reduce it again, but only types with low details, such as wood types, permitted that. You could push a book down on the glass by hand, to flatten it. In Boston, in the late 1970s, stats cost about $2-$5, depending on size. The process was slow, especially if you had to send the work to a stat house. And because the photo paper was thick (approx. 100# [270 gsm] text), you had to use white-out paint on the edges to avoid a lot of opaquing work on the negatives. The photocopier worked on ordinary paper (I used 24# [90 gsm]) and cost was just pennies. Dry transfer lettering (Letraset, et al.) was very expensive, about $7 per sheet, and I never liked the way that many designs were interpreted. The late type designer Freda Sack, who had worked for Letraset in London, and may well have been the finest cutter of rubylith film ever, told me that Letraset often assigned the least talented people to work on classic types, because of their low-detail shapes, and the experienced ones like her to work on complex decorated designs.
I realize that this is very boring info, but I write it here for the historical record!