Tone-Line Photography

Tone-Line Photography by M. Halberstadt by Susan Ehrens

Market Street Tone-Line. Photo by M. Halberstadt

M. Halberstadt. San Francisco lrom Twin Peaks (tone-line proeess), 1954. Photographed for Ford Motor Company dealers in San Francisco, used as a Christmas card, printed on a gold background.

Tone-Line Photography By Halberstadt

Halberstadt took this view from Twin Peaks looking slightly southeast down at Market Street slicing across downtown San Francisco.

He was asked in 1954 by the Ford Motor Company dealers of the Bay Area to produce an image for their Christmas card. It provided an opportunity for Halberstadt to further experiment with a special negative-making technique used in photo-lithography known as the tone-line process,

As early as 1947, Halberstadt had discovered it in an Eastman Kodak book while setting out to design a new letter-head for his business.

Basically, the process consists of making a soft (underexposed) positive from a negative. Then, after sandwiching the two together in register, the ensemble is placed in a contact printing frame to expose to Kodalith film. By placing a weak film positive in contact with a regularly exposed negative, you end up with a low-contrast surrogate negative.

The frame with the negatives gets placed on a revolving platform (Halberstadt used a small patter’s wheel) and exposed to a light source placed about 45 degrees from vertical. A thin sliver of light passes through the sandwiched negatives along the edges of light and dark objects in the image. The exposed Kodolith film is processed in a high-contrast litho developer. The resulting photographic image is solely determined by varying the exposure.

After a few trials and errors, Halberstadt decided to begin this process with a low-contrast original negative. He photographed on a slightly overcast, but clear day to capture this particular Market Street view. Careful expasure and development provided a print revealing primarily enhanced highlights.

Other variations were subsequently generated by re-exposing the film to achieve a Saba tier effect (solarization of the image), and by using different angles of light. Halberstadt has frequently used tone line since the 1950s, intrigued by the process of “beginning with something in the real world and ending up with something totally abstract.”

To read more by Halberstadt about the tone-line process:

John p, Schaeffer. The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Technique of Photography, Book 2 I Little Brown and Company, 19981. pages 120-123.

From B&W Magazine


Tone-Line Still Live. Photo by M. Halberstadt