Photographer Willie Middlebrook (1957–2012), a strong advocate for the Black American community, sought to enlarge public perceptions through his painterly depiction of its people and places. Middlebrook is known for a style he called photographic paintings – portraits of friends and family captured traditionally but printed by brushing and spraying the developer and toners. The resulting prints are full of energy, with subjects peering “from beneath surfaces that suggest erosion, graffiti, peeling billboards and, ultimately, a symbolic struggle for identity,” the Chicago Tribune wrote in 1995,
The print titled Portraits of My People, Series Image #542 appeared as a photogravure in the inaugural volume of 21st Editions’, Journal of Contemporary Photography. Without comparing it to Middlebrook’s silver prints, photogravure seems like the ideal medium for his painterly technique. But is it? His darkroom work resulted in a beautiful and emotionally powerful patina of color that is eradicated in the monochrome photogravure.
This example serves as a reminder that photogravure syntax, when harnessed by the artist, can be as powerful as any print medium, if not more. But when it is used to simply ‘reproduce’ an image in a ‘deluxe’ portfolio, it can, in many cases, diminish the efficacy of the original work, or transform it into something else entirely.
Unfortunately, we lost Willie Middlebrook in 2012. It would have been interesting to hear his opinion on the subject.
From 1998 to 2003, fine press photography book publisher 21st Editions released 6 volumes of The Journal of Contemporary Photography featuring hand-pulled photogravure images from an international group of contemporary photographers. The photogravures are made by Jon Goodman. The images are combined with criticism, poetry, and fiction from acclaimed writers. The project aimed, successfully or not, to create a contemporary version of Stieglitz’s celebrated Camera Work.
This image is from Volume I which focuses on “transcendent vision”. Writers include Pulitzer Prize winning poet Richard Wilbur; prize-winning novelists Ann Beattie and Robert Olen Butler; poet and critic Dana Gioia; Harvard professors and award winning historians John Stilgoe and John Stauffer; and Wales’ great poet, the late R. S. Thomas, among many others. Photographers featured in Volume I include Bernard Faucon, Michael Kenna, Holly Wright, Luis Gonzales Palma, Keith Carter, Duane Michaels, Mark Klett, Sandy Skoglund, Jock Sturgis, Ernestine Ruben, Willie Middlebrook, John Metoyer, Olivia Parker, Leonard Baskin, and Patrick Bailey-Maitre-Grand.