March 31, 2019

The Phototype

Three cutters crouched in the underbrush. Three nervous stalkers clad in sweated leathers, eyes wide and shrouded by dripping leaves. They shifted, uneasy, on the damp earth, worried the grips of sabres and armed gunsprings, breathed shallow the thick and mineral air.

Down the way, in broad view of the cutters' ambuscade, there stretched a summer road overhung low by fig boughs dripping with just-quit rain. Far down that road, a gang of wiry, rag-wrapped figures made their rough and swaggering way, hunched and squinting 'gainst the dappled midday sun. Some half a dozen ragwretches, all with spindly horns like black, ridged stilettos. They carried stained sacks and rusted arms, glanced nervous about with redshot eyes.

In the brush, the lead cutter, crop-haired and painted in soot, grinned. Sweat rolled over her lip, scarred by many splits. "Ready to knock'em up?" she whispered, fondling the low-carbon body of her pistol.

"Shite yes, Boss." A blond cutter nodded, twitched one eye, 

"Goody," said Boss, leaning eagerly. Behind, the others undid their safeties, licked their lips. 

The wretches drew a shy ten meters near, slowly stopped. One, the first ahead, lifted a clawed hand, tipped its chin, drew a long sniff through the crisscrossed trappings over its nose. Its ragged pupils widened. "Manflesh," it rasped, showing a red and white smile of wet teeth.

At that, there cracked the steely, hammerlike retorts and steely slithers of three gunsprings discharging, cycling. The lead wretch twitched. A pair of flechettes drew lines of red and torn cloth through its gut and sternum, dotted the road. Another volley. Its fellows jerked, too, pierced or gone into a hunched and panicked scuttle. They began to scatter. 

"Eat shite, jackbags!" cried Boss, rising from the brush. Her pistol cracked four times more, bucked as it put steel needles through two more wretches. She drew a broad knife. Her fellows, their magazines also empty, sprang to arms.

Just two wretches remained standing. Their eyes flicked fearfully to companions, spilled crookedly on the wet road. They turned to run. The cutters pursued, hobnailed boots digging wet clods from the earthen lane.

"Gotcha," yelped the blond cutter, leapt into a scrambling lunge, saber outstretched. Its tip caught one wretch under the scapula, tore and stuck in cloth and flesh. The creature went down, yammering croakily.

Boss and the third cutter, a teenager in red-striped stockings strapped with leather chaps, pursued the last: a long-legged monster trailing drool. They sprinted furiously, elbows flailing. Their charge giggled maniacally, fearfully.

The stocking-clad cutter leveled a leverette*, paused, aimed. The longarm clacked, twanged shortly. A flechette whistled past the wretch's left horn. The creature hooted hoarsely, in relief, kept running. Behind, Stockings sighed, miserably fumbled a new round from her bandolier.

Boss heaved ahead. She gained on the wretch, legs seething. It sniffed. Its giggling turned to whimpers. "C'mere!" Boss growled, lunged, snagged it by the trappings. She tackled it down. Both figures went to ground in a spill of flailing limbs, lay momentarily flat. The wretch shook its head, went for a cheese knife stuck in its footwrap. 

"Nope," said Boss, kicking hard at its ankle. Her steel toes crunched hard into reaching fingers. The wretch yelped, tried to scramble aright. Boss tackled it again about the hips, bore it half bent-over, then upright in a headlock, knife pressed to swaddled neck.

The other cutters sprinted over, began happily bludgeoning the thing about the face, gut, and groin as Boss restrained it, grinning toothily. The wretch giggled nervously, at first, then screamed and hollered roughly as a duster-clad** punch crashed through its snaggled teeth. Wet, champing blows echoed shortly down the rain-dripped lane. The cutters laughed, gleeful. 

Nearby, there was a puffy pop, a fiery bloom of blue-white. The cutters quit their ministrations, frowned, looked to its source. 

Closeby, a small, whiskery man had just lowered a black, wood-and-brass box from his eye. It had a lense on the front and a black tarp hood in the back. Smoke rose from the seams in the box.

"Excellent," said the man, pulling his head from the hood. He drew, from a drawer slot in the box's bottom, a small, copper plate shedding smoke. He held it gingerly, blew on it, squinted.  

"What the shite? Photograver-guy." queried Stockings. "You're still here?"

"Oh, yes," said the man. He peered at the square, beaming. "And a good thing I caught up. How candid! Such raw brutality, and in fine light, too. It'll print well."

"What's that? What'd he do?" said the blond cutter, looking nervously from his Boss to the man.

"He took a reaming phototype of us," said Boss. Frowning, she punched her knife quickly through the squirming ragwretch's skull. The bloodied creature choked, went limp. She tossed it away, turned to the photograver. "Give me the bloody thing."

"Why? Want to see?" said the man. 

"Give it." Boss seized the plate, frowned at it. Her companions gathered round, frowned as well.

On the copper, waxy and slightly charred, showed an image in counter-relief. Though small and inverted, its detail remained clear: Boss's grinning, sooty face and flexing arm wrapped round the wretch's neck. Stocking's gleeful, striped kick, buried in its groin. The blond cutter's fist, caught just as it pulled a splash of red and shattered teeth from crying jaws. A framed, frozen beating.


"We look like a bunch of ratbags," said Stockings, crestfallen.

Boss frowned. "Don't do this," she said, waving the phototype at its creator. 

"But," said the Photograver. "It's what you paid me to do."

"We paid you," said Boss. "To take good types."

The Photograver smiled awkwardly. "But, this is an excellent type.""Good ones," said Boss. She leaned in, tapped her temple with the copper type. "Action types. Saving people. Not embarrassing shite." She tossed it to the muddy road.

"Oh," said the Photograver, head bowed, folding his camera-hood. "You want to look like heroes." He looked to Boss.

"There. You've got it straight," she replied.

The Photograver shrugged. Thoughtful, he plucked a new plate, covered in wax paper, from his pocket, slotted it carefully into the camera's drawer. It clicked into place. "I will do what I can." 

The cutters nodded seriously. "Goody."

"Just do remember," said the whiskery man.  He knelt, camera directed at the dead ragwretch, knife still embedded between its crossed eyes. "This machine…"

His lens flashed blue-white, popped, smoked. He looked up, smiled thinly.Ribbons of smoke curled between his hands. 

"It reflects only the truth."


Eleven years ago, on a street corner in Sorelle, the first phototype was graven. Graven by a mouse with an odd, lensed box: A so-called camera; the first machine to capture the world in all its truth

Within a year, the mouse, an etcher by the name of Jame Spice, was hailed as the Coast's most preeminent inventor. By the fantastic results of his now nearly-perfect method, he acquired investors in his new, revolutionary technology: Photogravure, the production of printable images on copperplate. The productions of true images, free of the bias of an artist's hand.

Today, the design of Spice's camera remains much the same:

A shuttered lens permits light momently within a pitch-darkened chamber, exposing a copper plate, treated with photoreactive salts suspended in wax, to light. Exposure ignites the salts, flash-etching the underlying metal and creating near-instantly a product that, with some cleaning, may be used to create intaglio prints. Said exposure is screened by a fine, 160 line-per-inch mesh before it hits the plate, causing the treatment to burn in a pointalist matrix. This screening, informed by Spice's background in etching, creates the "teeth" and "valleys" required to support ink and printing. As a result, the "photographs" printed off a phototype are composed of many dots of gradient size.

A phototype is a replicable, distributable thing. One, once taken, may be used to print unlimited photographs in its image. Duplicate copperplates may be readily graven in quantity or altered size in a photogravure darkroom. They are readily, if not quite affordably, distributed and made ready for the print of photographs in publications of all kinds. Their prevalence is revolutionary.

By this revolution, civilized folk have come to know the true appearance of the world's faces, places, and things. By their books, their posters. By their magazines, pamphlets, and newspapers, people enjoy numerous and detailed photographs. They know the likeness of their politicians, their celebrities, their public enemies, and their distant relatives. They marvel at the lay and make of cities and lands they will never venture to see. They fear the strange and fearful visages of folk, creatures, and monsters rarely survived to tell the sight of, if not for the camera. 

Photogravure is a technology for, if not by, the masses. A prepared copperplate, ready for use in a camera, costs around a shilling, often four pence, from a photogravure supplier; far more than a consumer may usually afford. A camera itself may run a score of pounds or more. By this prohibitive cost, most folk never come to grave a type themselves. Rather, they enjoy and marvel at those who can. Professionals, usually. Portraitists and framers of images, once painters, whose spatial eye and sense of light befits its artful capture. These executive photogravers serve high-quality prints to publishers, whose works are the purvey of the masses. 

In ten years, photogravure's effect on society has been subtle, but palpable. By the power of the graven image, visual identities have gained new weight. Bureaucracies in government, law, and finance now know their servants, criminals, and workers not as names, but as faces; trackable and recognizable. Folk know their Royals, their governors, their elected officials. They know their criminals by wanted posters, and their solicitors by ads. They know their colleagues and themselves, be they barmen, barbers, union laborers, or cutters, by their own faces staring back on licensed documents.

Folk also know what once they were never meant to see. By the truth of the phototype, commoners know the marks of hidden things. Assassinations, for instance: A photo of the Duke of Leah, her hair spilled and bloody where she was garotted on a marble floor. Scandal, too: A shadowed type, shot through rose bushes and leaded glass, but still recognizable, of the Suzerain of Perth bedding his own sister. Heresy, even, and perhaps most famous of all: A photograph titled Woman in Altamora, widely distributed before being banned in the religious South, which dared claim to capture the Lord herself on a balcony of her heavensome minarette.

Any and all such images are received with trust and candor, for all folk who know the phototype trust one thing: It reflects only the truth.

Author's Note

This one didn't post when it was meant to. Incidental April Fool. I'll come back and add the mechanical stuff I've been considering for a Photogravure skill and related sorts for the Incunabuli system playtest.

This article was made possible by Adam Gomez and fellow generous supporters on Patreon.


* A leverette is a lever-action gunspring, one not driven by a maincoil. Such a weapon may be fed by magazine or by manual breech-loading. They must be cycled between every shot, usually by folding the weapon in half or folding down the stock.

** Knuckle-dusters are extremely common among cutters, especially in the hands of experienced members of that caste. They are used less often as a secondary weapons or sidearms than primary hold-outs in the plentiful throwdowns and back-alley jaw-breakings that cutters tend to take part in and administer to people they don't like; usually other cutters. They are also a popular way to end any monster restrained and sufficiently hated enough as to deserve a slow and crunchy end.