Before, we lived in a black and white world. Black and white movies, black and white televisions, black and white photos. The color in the media was sparse and looked artificially colored when we saw it. Technology has prevented this in most cases. When it was used, it was a long and difficult process.
The Times never used color until we installed a new offset press in 1969. Printing with the old letterpress or any letterpress was a difficult process.
Converting a color photo into four curved pieces of metal was a long process and the results were normally horrific.
Offset presses made printing a little easier, but it was still time consuming. When The Times printed the first local photo in The Times on November 25, 1969, they were proud enough to have it featured on the front page the same day Apollo 12 returned from the moon. The astronauts, I suppose, could wait. We had pumpkins! – Look at it on page 2 today, it’s a nice picture.
I came to The Times less than a decade later. They still weren’t running the color on a regular basis. To publish a photo in a newspaper, you must separate it into four colors that we use for printing.
Using four compact, car-sized printing units, paper passes between rotating press cylinders to print the image using cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink.
The paper travels about 15 feet from first ink to last, traveling at about 13 miles per hour, a press takes less than a second to print a color photo.
It’s the color separation that takes all the time. In 1969 they probably gave a lot of time to get the files from the lab and strip them down into the pages.
We still had trouble doing color separations until the 1980s.
The first system we used took about 13 steps per photo and required us to do a color print first. I’m slightly colorblind, which made for some interesting photos in the newspaper.
Two hours on a photo would be on the fast side. A “New” This piece of gear saved me a bit of time, but I still remember spending the entire night doing a page of color photos after Marietta College won the World Series.
I was still working on the files when the morning shift arrived. The photos on the Associated Press wire were mostly black and white. It took 30 minutes to send the three photos needed for a color photo over the phone lines.
You could actually hear the photos being transmitted if you turned up the speaker. It was faster than us, but the quality was terrible.
Digital photography has made the process much easier. The quality has improved and the speed has become faster. Today, the photos are separated as part of the manufacture of the plates. We can get a page from a computer to the four plates needed in about 20 minutes.
The direct-to-plate system reduces the dozens of steps required to get a single photo to paper and reduces the total number of pages to be reproduced, from the first copy of the page to the one that comes out, from eight to just three.
The press units that printed that first color photo in 1969 still print color photos for us today.
We combined four of the units with eight others in 2002 to create a larger 12 unit press.
The four original units have been printing my photos for 45 years.
Before you say anything, we’re both holding up just fine, thank you. I’m just really glad I haven’t stayed up all night to do color pages yet.
Art Smith is online editor for The Times, he can be contacted at [email protected]