Copy Art: An Overview of Process and Techniques

April 2020

Copy Art is a genre of photomechanical paper-based art created through the use of the common office photocopier. Some refer to the process as Xerography, referencing the first and most common machine produced by the Xerox Haloid company in the late 1950s, while others may call it electrophotography, a more general term that takes into account the scientific process whereby the copy is produced through the use of static electricity. Regardless, photocopying is a photomechanical process rather than the photochemical process of analog photography. Because of that, it presents particular questions and challenges to the artist. In this essay, a brief history of the photocopier and outline of its process will be discussed followed by a more in depth look at the unique aesthetic qualities of photocopy art and what techniques artists used to achieve them. The scope of artworks under consideration will be limited to those produced on some of the earliest machines, only capable of black-and-white copies, and to image-based artworks rather than text-based. Although, as will be shown, the differences are sometimes purposefully difficult to discern. These limitations are meant to get at some of the essential qualities of photocopy art while also attempting to keep the discussion in the realm of fine arts rather than expanding into political activist art, mail art, or literature, for example, although such an accessible tool as the photocopier undoubtedly creates overlap between those and many other genres.

The history of the modern photocopier reads like so many other invention stories: a doggedly focused inventor working furiously in their home, apartment, or garage eschewing personal relationships until lighting strikes and their experimentation results in something viable. The first official electrophotographic image—that is, an image produced through xerography, a term coined by its creator literally meaning dry (xeros) writing (graphein)—marks its own date and place of creation: “10-22-38 Astoria.” Written in India ink on a glass slide by his assistant, the US inventor Chester Carlson produced this image in his darkened apartment, not quite with lightning, but rather a charge of static electricity created by the sweep of a handkerchief on a sulfur-covered, light-sensitive surface. The process included laying the glass slide on top of the surface, exposing it to light, removing the slide, and then sprinkling lycopodium powder on the sulfur. Finally, Carlson proceeded “[b]y gently blowing on the surface” and thereby producing “a near-perfect duplicate in powder of the notation which had been printed on the glass slide” (Eichhorn 13). As with photography decades earlier, the now crude indexical trace of this moment is a tantalizing piece of evidence, a premonition of industrialization entering the white-collar sphere, in scrawling characters.

While a gentle blow and whip of the handkerchief sound more like a magic trick and the powdered duplicate some alchemical wizardry, the commercial photocopier stands in contrast as a contained, innovative, and automated method that helped modernize the buttoned-up world of the 1950s office. The first commercially available photocopier from the Xerox Haloid company was the Xerox 914, which hit the market in 1959, a good twenty years after that fortuitous moment in Astoria. Now, “[t]he copier created an electrostatic image of a document on a rotating metal drum, and used it to transfer toner—ink in a powdered format—to a piece of paper, which would then be sealed in place by heat” (Thompson 2). The negatively-charged metal drum is covered in the light-sensitive sulfur, activated by a halogen lamp that reflects light back from the white parts of a document. The toner then sticks to the negatively-charged particles until the paper passes through and attracts those charged toner particles, which are then heat-sealed.

While there were previous methods for producing copies of documents, xerography had several benefits. Unlike mimeography, it did not require a master to be sacrificed and again unlike mimeography it was a dry process, rather than a wet and messy one. 3M’s Thermofax required special heat-sensitive paper, that could continue to darken and deteriorate even after being set, while the Xerox machine could function with practically any kind of paper. With all of these advantages, the Xerox 914 was explicitly marketed to white-collar office executives for copying documents easily, quickly, and in-house.

Of course, the machines were not marketed to artists explicitly, but nonetheless many found creative ways to employ what quickly became an accessible, albeit cumbersome tool. With several straightforward adjustments and without much intervention into the mechanics of the machine itself, one can yield surprising results, often only relying on the machine’s built-in capabilities. One example is the use of different papers, selected for qualities in weight, color, or texture, or simply the ability to use any household or plain office paper on-hand. As mentioned previously, this was one of the most innovative features of the commercial office photocopier when it first hit the markets, helping to further distinguish it from machines like the 3M Thermofax and its proprietary heat-sensitive paper that was potentially cost prohibitive to the process of artistic experimentation. An early commercial for the Xerox 914 highlights this special attribute, demonstrating the use of plain bond paper, office stationery, and brown butcher paper (cut to standard dimensions). The commercial ends with the clever announcement: “It takes an extraordinary machine to make copies on ordinary paper” (Advertisement). As photocopiers grew more sophisticated, other adjustments included switching the toner cartridge from standard black ink powder to another color, and increasing or decreasing the level of contrast or tone. Of course, any of these modifications could be used in tandem. Most works, however, including those to be analyzed here, made use of “ordinary paper” and standard black toner, resulting in extraordinary renderings of quotidian objects.

Regardless of adjustments made to the more modular aspects of the photocopier, there are several physical limitations that uniquely effect how artworks are produced, including limitations to the size of the objects that can be reproduced. As an imposing machine (the Xerox 914 was almost 650 pounds), transporting the photocopier in order to copy specific objects would be unrealistic. Instead, objects must be brought to it. Recognizing this tension between scale and portability, artist Pati Hill, whose work will be examined more in depth later, attempted to “photocopy Versailles,” transporting small objects like a bellpull or cobblestone from the historic palace to her temporary Paris studio (Torchia). That an artist would go to such lengths, demonstrates how this creative constraint differentiates the copier from other smaller photographic apparatus like the 35mm still camera, a much more reasonable option for documenting large-scale sites or objects. Additionally, the machine elicits a particular physical response and mode of interaction on the part of the user/artist like playing a piano or weaving on a large loom. Finally, the glass plate is a fixed and contained scannable area, limiting the size or part of the object that can be represented in the resulting image. As Hill explained in a 1980 interview with the New Yorker, the “copier works like a magnet, attracting or rejecting things” (Torchia) touching on both aesthetic and practical considerations. Given these limitations, there are several common techniques used by many photocopier artists. The following three that will be examined here are borrowed from methods outlined by Spanish artist Marisa Gonzalez, which she developed through her studies with US artist Sonia Landy Sheridan at the School of the Art Institute Chicago in the 1970s.

First is Direct Screen Work. Gonzalez describes this as “working with objects, collages, drawings, photographs, patterns and textures directly on the copier screen, alone or in combination” (298). While the arrangement of objects on the glass requires its own artistry and experimentation, this application is the most conventional of techniques, mimicking the intended use of the photocopier. This is how artist Pati Hill worked almost exclusively, exploring her own domestic space by placing household and personal objects onto the machine’s glass plate and copying them without other immediate interventions. Examining some examples of Hill’s artworks in depth and her use of Direct Screen Work in creating them, also presents an opportunity to make note of some of the common formal and aesthetic qualities of photocopy art.

In the image below (Fig. 1.) of hair curlers from Hill’s series Alphabet of Common Objects, produced between 1977 and 1979, it is easy to recognize the shallow depth of field. In photography, depth of field is described as the zone of the image that is in focus. Normally, this can be adjusted in the camera by either opening the aperture in order to shorten the range of focus or closing the aperture, which results in more of the image in focus. The depth of field on a photocopier, however, is fixed with the equivalent of the aperture set open. Manufactured as they were to give sharp focus only to the surface of a flat document pressed against the glass plate, the range of focus or depth of field is deliberately shallow. When a rounded or more sculptural object, such as a hair curler, is photocopied, the shallow depth of field becomes obvious with only the foreground of the object, which is butted up against the glass, in focus.

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Fig. 1. Pati Hill, Alphabet of Common Objects (hair curlers)

Along with the shallow range of focus, the one-to-one reproduction of the object also contributes to the fine detail achieved in such images. While today, the photocopier is capable of enlarging or reducing portions of the object to be photocopied, early models could only reproduce the objects true to size. Like in the example of the hair curlers, therefore, the ridges and fine teeth easily appear, and their features, along with the curler’s geometric patterns, enhanced further by the high contrast black-and-white. Reviewing a 2018 exhibition of Hill’s work, which included photocopies of delicate objects such as scarves and gloves, writer Jason Urban noted that the images “all displayed the telltale visual clues of early photocopying—heightened contrast and pronounced graininess coupled with refined detail, delicate edges leading to shallow gradients, a result of the machine’s compressed depth of field” (31). An innate feature of the photocopier, high contrast is ideal for making copies of text and written documents in order to preserve their legibility. For artists like Hill, however, this became an aspect to exploit or even intensify. Using the IBM Copier II, which she preferred “to the more common Xerox copiers because she said they yielded richer blacks” (Sellers), she would often overfill the black toner cartridge beyond manufacturer recommendations (Torchia). Doing so allowed her to obtain “rich blacks that bear comparison with charcoal drawings and the linear precision of etchings” (Torchia). This sentiment is echoed by other artists like Sonia Landy Sheridan, expressing that “Xerox’s indirect electronic Haloid system is a fundamental process capable of fine quality prints reminiscent of charcoal and graphic drawing” (Sheridan 104). The stark and precise renderings then produced by the photocopier can transform objects beyond documentation, creating images capable of subjective response by highlighting and enhancing certain qualities.

Another feature of the photocopier when employed artistically is something both physically and conceptually unique: the perspective from which the photocopier captures the image of the object. That is, the object is seen from underneath, or as Hill describes in her manifesto, Letters to Jill: a catalogue and some notes on copying published in 1979, “[i]t is the side of your subject that you do not see that is reproduced” (Essex). This curious aspect takes into account the physical effects of gravity, the weight of the object against the glass, giving the image produced a sense of the subject being pressed or encased. This can be seen in the image below, which will also serve as an example of the technique Gonzalez calls Image Decomposition.

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Fig. 2. Barbara T. Smith, Artist in the Science Lab

In this layered and complex work by Barbara T. Smith from 1976, entitled Artist in the Science Lab (Fig. 2.), Smith’s face and hands are pressed down against the glass. The perspective or viewpoint produced is unlike that of conventional self-portraiture, at once conveying a feeling of the dead weight of the body while also conjuring the physical tension required of the artist to lay herself over the glass. “With copier technology, it is possible to make an object physically part of the screen and to reduce it to a flat surface. The machine plays a starring role during the action and performance” (Gonzalez). The self-portrait is a common subject in photocopy artworks, with Andy Warhol producing an early example in 1969 in which the side of the artist’s face (eye closed) and hand are pressed against the copier’s glass. The original owner of the portrait shared in an interview the reaction his wife had upon seeing it: “she said it looked like death! She thought it was just too morbid to hang in our apartment” (Artnet), a fitting response to the uncanny quality evoked by the perspective and process.

While in Artist in the Science Lab, Smith’s nose is in focus, slightly constrained against the glass, her cheek is out-of-focus and rounded by a chiaroscuro that quickly blends into the characteristic charcoal black of the photocopy. The contrast and shading of the facial features are achieved not just by the shallow depth of field, but in combination with the short but powerful throw of light from the machine’s halogen lamp, giving, for example, a high key nose while her eyes are set in almost complete darkness.

Another uncanny quality of Smith’s self-portrait is the stretched fingers, with the same fingernail visible in two places at once marking two different positions of time. This is an example of what Gonzalez calls Image Decomposition, which is produced by “moving the original print or object away from the screen the moment the machine is copying, stretching and sweeping the image” (298). In this instance, the object is Smith’s hand and as it moves across the glass at the same time as the light scans it, the fingers get continually reflected back to the light-sensitive sulfur-covered drum resulting in an image of unrealistically stretched fingers. In Kate Eichhorn’s comprehensive book on the history of xerography, Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century, she makes a distinction between the printed text and the photocopy and in so doing describes the process of Image Decomposition as related to the textual document. “Move a document while it is under exposure and the type in the copy will move too, sometimes distorting the text beyond readability” (42). It is the intervention at the moment of making and the resulting trace that pronounces this difference. In the case of Smith’s self-portrait, a useful comparison is again to that of still photography, as “the stretching” is similar to using a long shutter speed while the subject is in motion. Here, however, the hand is moving almost along the same axis as the light moves across the copier glass.

A series of images by Gonzalez herself also shows how movement and time can be represented in photocopy artworks. The project Crystal Sea (Fig. 3) from 1987, is a grid of 16 images of marbles in various states of movement toward and across the glass of the photocopier. Both Crystal Sea and Artist in the Science Lab demonstrate how simple movement at the time of exposure can produce unnatural and evocative relationships to time, highlighting the surreal by using a machine made for realist documentation of text.

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Fig. 3. Marisa Gonzalez, Crystal Sea

The final technique to be described here is what Gonzalez calls Degeneration. Put simply, Degeneration is the process of making a copy of a copy of a copy and so on. Explaining how this method is both generative and processual, creating not only a final image, but countless iterations along with it, Gonzalez writes that “[e]ach image generates another, giving rise to changes in the texture and shape of the original image” (298). As an example of Degeneration is the image below, an untitled work from 1968 by Robert Morris from the Xerox Book. The original picture, an early color photograph of Earth taken from space (which also graced the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog that year), while still recognizable as the planet transforms from a photorealist rendering to something simultaneously more graphic and abstract. By degenerating the original image, dark gritty outlines appear along the clouds’ edges creating drop shadows while some edges of the planet have faded away. “When we capture an image and explore the metamorphosis of a sequence with the help of copiers, images generate new images and the source eventually becomes unrecognizable” (Gonzalez 299). While not completely unrecognizable, the symbolism of a degenerated (image of) Earth, however, is clear. Eichhorn contends that as “a photocopy is photocopied again and again, it migrates from hot to cool in [Marshall] McLuhan’s terms—from a medium that requires only limited participation on the part of the reader to one that requires considerable participation” (42). The new textural elements and artifacts revealed through the process of Degeneration therefore require a more participatory reading of the image of Earth. Regardless, it is in fact by harnessing a flaw of the photocopier that this effect is achieved: that is, the machine’s inability to reproduce perfect, or lossless, copies. While it may require several generations before a transformation becomes obvious, after countless re-iterations the original image or text loses its integrity and becomes something different. Or, as described in the exhibition catalog for Fast, Cheap & Easy: The Copy Art Revolution, “[t]he process of photocopying reveals a unique transformation of the visual input, which increases when a copy is recopied again and again” (Hirsch 3), therefore highlighting specific elements of an image.

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Fig. 4. Robert Morris, Untitled (Xerox Book)

The ability to exploit this flaw as a source for creative experimentation and as a mechanized game of chance is an alluring aspect for many photocopy artists. Returning to the work of Pati Hill, in her Artforum obituary, writer Richard Torchia explained that she “also relished the Copier II’s flaws, such as the tiny white spots this model sometimes dispersed across the surfaces of its prints where specks of the powdered ink failed to adhere to the paper” (Torchia). The repetitive reproduction of images, especially through Degeneration, could exacerbate flaws—either in the failure of the machine’s basic functions or simple inability to produce truly lossless copies—becoming a source for aesthetic pleasure rather than frustration.

As it invokes larger questions around authenticity, originality, and the auratic, the process of Degeneration also presents an opportunity to conclude. A final example describes a provocative way of investigating this. In 1985, artist Timm Ulrich produced a work entitled Walter Benjamin: ‘The Artwork in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction’ Interpretation for which he re-copied the title of Benjamin’s seminal text 100 times. Using the technique of Degeneration, making a new copy from the previous, the result was a graphic document that was no longer legible. “The loss of the aura of a work of art described by Benjamin becomes immediately clear in relation to the loss of data in the copy” (Reese 8). The text-based work then becomes something graphic, abstract, and almost purely visual.

Reviewing the exhibition catalog Medium: Photocopy, writer Virgil Hammock notes that “[t]he reason for using older processes in printmaking was, and is, that they offer the capability to reproduce a multiple image. This is not always, or even principally, the goal of the copy artist, who often seeks a unique object” (78-9). While an exploration of such ethical issues is best left for another time, briefly here it is still worth considering how the artist comes to these questions when the photocopier is their process or medium of choice. How exactly is original defined within the photocopy artform? After all, the process of “making a copy” already assumes a detachment from an “original.” With traditional analog photography, the original might be considered the film negative from which perfect copies can be made. Hill, however, poetically offers an alternative in her Letters to Jill, writing that “[t]he object is your negative” (Torchia), although its paper copy might be the original, unique work of art.

Works Cited:

Advertisement for Xerox. Original date unknown. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xZYcWsh8t0

Artnet. “Art Market Watch, Andy Warhol: Docudrama.” News, 30 March, 2012. http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/news/artmarketwatch/warhol-photostat-3-30-12.asp

Eichhorn, Kate. Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century. The MIT Press, 2016.

Essex Street Gallery. “Press Release: Pati Hill: How Something Can Have Been at One Time and in One Place and Nowhere Else Ever Again.” Essex Street Gallery, 8 September-21 October, 2018. https://www.essexstreet.biz/files/Pati%20Hill%20Press%20Release%20.pdf

Gonzalez, Marisa. “Copiers, Motion and Metamorphosis.” Leonardo, vol. 23, no. 2/3, 1990, pp. 295-300.

Hammock, Virgil. “Review: Medium: Photocopy by Monique Brunet-Weinmann.” RACAR: revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review, vol. 17, no. 1, 1990, pp. 78-80.

Hirsch, Robert. “Fast, Cheap & Easy: The Copy Art Revolution.” Fast, Cheap & Easy: The Copy Art Revolution. CEPA Gallery, 2018, pp. 2-5.

Reese, Beate. “On Copies, Art & Life.” Fast, Cheap & Easy: The Copy Art Revolution. CEPA Gallery, 2018, pp. 8-13.

Sellers, Meredith. “The Personal and Poetic Prints of a Female Pioneer of Copier Art.” Hyperallergic, April 20, 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/292378/the-personal-and-poetic-prints-of-a-female-pioneer-of-copier-art/

Sheridan, Sonia Landy. “Generative Systems versus Copy Art: A Clarification of Terms and Ideas.” Leonardo, vol. 16, no. 2, 1983, pp. 103-108.

Thompson, Clive. “How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked—and Played.” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/duplication-nation-3D-printing-rise-180954332/

Torchia, Richard. “Passages: Pati Hill (1921-2014).” Artforum, 18 December, 2014. https://www.artforum.com/passages/richard-torchia-on-pati-hill-1921-2014-49570

Urban, Jason. “Exhibition Review: Pati Hill’s Scanning Bed Romance.” Art in Print, Jan-Feb, 2019, pp. 31-33. https://www.essexstreet.biz/files/Art%20in%20Print.pdf