Unfortunately, a myriad of photomechanical processes have been labeled photogravure, or “gravure”. Sometimes “gravure” refers to the first image ever made by the agency of light, and other times it refers to the coupon section of the local Sunday newspaper. One of these ‘gravures’ is priceless and the other is lucky to make it into the recycling bin. So for the purposes of this site, when we talk about ‘photogravure’ we are referring to what we consider true photogravures – the hand-pulled photogravure (heliogravure fr)*.
A hand-pulled photogravure is just that – made by hand. Every print is inked and pulled by hand under tremendous pressure on a flat-bed press, and therefore each print is subtly unique. This is the gold-standard of all photomechanical processes. It is the process that William Henry Fox Talbot worked so hard to improve throughout his career, and that Karel Kilč eventually perfected. It is the process that Peter Henry Emerson, Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, James Craig Annan and other great photographers worked tirelessly to master and embraced for some of their greatest works.*
Due to the myriad of variations and incarnations of photomechanical processes, the identification of a hand-pulled photogravure can be difficult. The following guide is a simplified approach intended to help sort it out. It is important to note, however, that it is by no means absolute and in some cases identification requires the opinion of a professional conservator.
Characteristic #1: Under magnification, there is no detectible dot or screen pattern, only random grain.
One of the quickest ways to tell that a print is not a hand-pulled photogravure is to study it under magnification with a loupe or other low power magnifier (8-15X). If a screen pattern or half-tone dot pattern is visible, then chances are you are looking at something made by a machine rather than by hand. Machine made prints, rotogravures or sheet fed gravures, can be beautiful but are not hand-pulled photogravure – a common mistake that confounds the problem of accurate descriptions by auctions, gallerists and institutions. Under magnification, a hand-pulled photogravure can be identified by the presence of a highly irregular and randomized grain pattern. The best place to study the fine microstructure is in the mid-tone areas or in places where two different tone boundaries meet. Sometimes the actual grains can be hard to see, as the cells of ink tend to overflow and blend together.
Exception: Callotypes are most often mistaken for photogravures because they share many similar characteristics. If you are not sure if the grain on your print is characteristic of a callotype or a photogravure, look for the differential gloss described below. In addition there are at least two early French processes that have a screen pattern – but these are very rare.
Characteristic #2: There is an authentic plate impression.
An important visual clue is the presence of a plate impression. Because the ink of a photogravure is transferred from the copper plate to the dampened paper under pressure from the press, the edges of the plate itself create an impression on the paper. A plate impression is often visible unless a thin tissue was used or the image was trimmed.
Exception: some crafty entrepreneurs made false plate impressions on cheap prints or non-intaglio prints to imitate a higher quality print and increase the value.
Characteristic #3: There is no paper texture within the image.
Passing through the press will calendar the paper, leaving the areas impressed by the plate smooth. So, if the paper used has a texture, the texture will be obliterated in the area of the plate. In addition, the surface of a photogravure will almost always be matte.
Characteristic #4: There is a differential gloss observable in reflected light.
The surface of a hand-pulled photogravure is three-dimensional. The areas of deepest shadow are comprised of the thickest deposits of ink, while areas of the lightest highlights are thin amounts of ink. Sometimes this image relief is perceptible by looking at the print at an oblique angle while reflected light off of its surface. The best way to do this is in a darkened room with a bright window. Hold the print between you and the window, parallel to the ground at about the height of your nose. While rocking the print, examine the way the light from the window reflects off of the print. The dimensionality of the print (often, but not always) will come alive in the form of differential gloss. Areas of more dense ink (the shadows) will reflect light differently. The print surface may take on a shimmering look at certain angles and at times the tones in the image may reverse.
If you cannot see the distinction of tones in reflected light, then it is a strike against it being a hand-pulled photogravure. On the other hand, if the reflection comes alive, and there is no screen or dot pattern (characteristic #1), then there is a good chance it is.
Exception: This is test is not definitive as there are a lot of examples that fall into a grey area or are difficult to see in reflected light.
Characteristic #5: The paper is not coated, shiny or glossy.
When the copper plate goes through the etching press, tremendous pressure is applied to transfer the ink onto the paper. Only certain papers work for this process: usually thick, fibrous papers, but also delicate-yet-strong china or japan tissues. The papers can vary greatly by weight and thickness, and can be made by either a mold or by hand. If the paper feels rich and of substance, or extremely delicate, it maybe a hand-pulled photogravure. The papers are usually soft in feel and are principally composed of 100% cotton fiber. You will never see a photogravure on coated paper, regardless if it is a dull coating or a glossy coating. Under magnification paper fibers will be clearly visible.
Exception: Although rare, some hand-pulled photogravures are printed on foil, silk or other materials.
Characteristic #6: There is no text on the plate or the text is engraved traditionally in the margins of the print.
Photogravures are, for the most part, printed on pages without text. It is common, however, to see information about the image, image-maker, atelier or publisher engraved within the margins of the plate impression.
Exception: Some elaborate projects create photogravure plates combining images and text. Sometimes a plate impression is visible around the image and text.
Characteristic #7: The print is monotone.
As photogravures prints are simply ink on paper, the ink can be any color. That being said, typically colors were selected to mimic photographic image tones—black, brown, amber, blue, or dark green were most popular for the monochromatic prints.
Exception: Multicolor hand-pulled photogravures are possible, but very uncommon. Various colors can be introduced by printing the plate multiple times in registration, changing the color of the ink with each pass. Prints can also be hand tinted with watercolors. And in a few cases, full color photogravures have been made from multiple copper plates, each etched with a separate color separation.
Characteristic #8: There is evidence of Ghosting
Most often seen in books or periodicals containing hand-pulled photogravures, the term refers to the appearance of a “ghost” image on the reverse side of an adjacent printed page of the bound work. Ghosting occurs as a result of oxidation by-products of printer’s ink interfering with the drying of the ink. A ghost can be caused by variables in the ink, paper, production process or ambient conditions (humidity and temperature.) Because hand-pulled photogravures often retain heavy amounts of thick ink, ghosting is more common with hand-pulled photogravures than with other less ink intensive photomechanical processes including the sheet-fed or roto gravure.
*More specifically, a hand-pulled photogravure is the product of a continuous-tone intaglio process in which an aquatinted copper plate is etched to various depths according to the original photograph’s tonality. The deeper the tone of the image, the deeper the copper is etched. The aquatint, a random grain pattern made from melted rosin dust (asphaultum) or, in modern times, an exposed random stochastic pattern from a separate sheet of film, creates a texture to hold the ink. Each time a print is made, the etched copper plate is inked and wiped by hand and pressed into paper under tremendous pressure. The official name for this method is the “Talbot-Kilč hand-pulled copper-plate photogravure” and it is the primary method used by artist-photographers to make original prints.
Still need help? For a deeper dive into the identification of photogravures and many of the other photomechanical processes check out: