Evolving with traditions
From photography to high-quality prints and collotype. Over a century in the history of Japanese image-making.
Benridō: Last stand of collotype
Benridō, based in Kyoto, has been active and prominent in the image-making industry since 1887. Among the printing techniques adopted by the company, the most relevant is probably Collotype printing, which was the state of the art for photographic reproduction at the turn of the twentieth century. Collotype printing was quickly replaced by the faster, cheaper, more mechanized process of offset printing, mostly due to the high level of expertise needed to obtain consistent results in collotype. This kind of difficulty, however, did not discourage Kyoto's craftsmen, who are used to works that require the highest skills, extreme precision and a great deal of patience.
As one of the world’s few remaining producers of collotypes, Benridō provides a now-rare opportunity for today’s photographers to have museum-quality prints made for exhibition and display, while also providing collotype prints of national treasures of Japan.
Benridō's Japanese approach to a European invention
Benridō was founded in 1887, during the Meiji period. Since its birth, Benridō operates in line with its principle to make use of new technologies to pass down traditions and culture to future generations. This principle led the company to evolve and always find new ways to achieve the purpose, from renting books to becoming a publisher and offering photography services.
One of the most relevant contributions of Benridō to the thriving of Japanese culture probably finds its form in their high-quality prints, most remarkably collotype, which they started producing in 1905. Their existing expertise allowed them to quickly master printing techniques that were introduced to Japan, starting a distinctive legacy in printmaking. By working with local paper makers and bookbinders, the Benridō craftsmen have gradually improved their work, obtaining an extremely high quality by adopting the peculiar approach of superior Kyoto artisanship to the European printing technologies. Their outstanding performance came to the attention of cultural and historical institutions; this led to the appointment of Benridō for the creation and preservation of thousands of Japanese national treasures and cultural artifacts.
New technologies are pushing collotype to the edge of extinction worldwide, but not for Benridō: the studio provides photographers of the digital age with a unique opportunity to realize their creative visions using this now-rare printing process.
Benridō’s works incorporate multiple materials and techniques, including collotype (used for the Dragon scroll you find on KiGinKin) and high-resolution offset printing (which you can see in the reproduction of the famous Fujin-Raijin folding screens on this page). The combination of various crafts accentuates the distinctive artisanal aspects of each, yielding an art object that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Benridō Atelier embodies an unbroken lineage of masterly artisanship, bringing over a century of experience to their craft. Benridō is one of only a handful of collotype studios that remain today, and is the world’s only producer of full-color photographic collotype prints.
The artisans at Benridō have perfectioned their crafts over the years, achieving results that are impossible with other printing techniques. The human-assisted collotype machines can reproduce both short and long runs. However, as the crafting process requires manual application of chemicals, skills are required and errors are made. What you see when you purchase a perfect collotype-print is the result of years of experience and numberless tries.
Watch this short documentary featuring Simon Baker—then Tate Modern’s photography curator, now director of MEP (Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris) and Benridō’s master printer Osamu Yamamoto to learn more about the distinctive features of collotype prints, the history of the process, and the forward-looking innovations Benridō has developed to preserve this traditional analog craft in the age of digital imaging.