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The Story of Photogravure

The immense development of photography… its importance as a medium of expression for the diffusion of thought and its profound influence exercised on the development of civilization, has given to the world one of the greatest discoveries of all time." — Georges Potonniée 1925

Simply put, photogravures are photographs etched into copper and printed traditionally with ink. Their rich velvety matte surface, deep shadows, delicate half tones, and luminous highlights make photogravures some of the most beautiful and tactile images ever printed. Their invention, critical to the development of photography itself, was derived from an extraordinary quest during the nineteenth century to harness the power to diffuse thought through the action of light.

Niépce and Fizeau

The early-nineteenth century was an age of great emphasis on science and the arts. Etchings and engravings were the most common methods used to illustrate scientific journals and travel books. When the new art of lithography swept France in 1813, it piqued the interest of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a scientist and inventor. Niépce had an unsteady hand, however, which motivated him to explore methods using light itself as his ‘etcher’. In his pursuit, he discovered that a substance called “Bitumen of Judea,” or asphalt, hardened when exposed to light. Niépce’s breakthrough came when he realized that this ‘light-hardened’ material resisted the bite of etcher’s acid. By 1825, thirteen years before the official announcement of the invention of photography, Niépce had succeeded in producing the first surviving image made exclusively by the action of light – it was also the first photogravure. Niépce’s process, formulated in collaboration with the engraver Auguste-François Lemaître, remains an essential origin point for both photography (images made with the action of light) and photomechanical printing (images made with the action of light printed in ink).

Contemporaneously in Paris, the French painter Louis Daguerre was also working to devise his own method of recording images made by light. In 1829, Daguerre was introduced to Niépce and, realizing they were working towards the same end, they formed a partnership. Niépce died in 1833 but Daguerre continued in partnership with Niépce’s son, and by 1839, with much fanfare, he announced the invention of the Daguerreotype. The silver-plated copper based daguerreotype was a scientific marvel; stunning in its clarity and its ability to render subtle details, it was an instant phenomenon. However, it was almost useless in science, art and industry as it provided only a single image. Initially, daguerreotypes could only be reproduced by skilled engravers who painstakingly copied daguerreotype images using traditional methods of engraving. It is no surprise, then, that scientists, opticians and chemists immediately began pursuing light-based methods of reproducing daguerreotypes. Based on traditional printing techniques and Niépce’s early photogravures, these innovators centered their efforts on etching daguerreotypes so they could receive ink. Early partial success came from Alfred Donné and Josef Barres, but it was Hippolyte-Louis Fizeau who devised the first practical method of etching daguerreotypes. By 1842 two daguerreotypes etched by the Fizeau process were published in Lerebours’ Excursions Daguérriennes, marking the first-ever published photographs, which were also the first published photogravures.

William Henry Fox Talbot

As successful as Fizeau’s etched plates were, the reproductions remained a far cry from translating the detail of the actual daguerreotype, nor did they approach the beauty of classic engraving. They were also difficult to produce and only yielded a few impressions before deteriorating. Efforts to etch daguerreotypes ended when William Henry Fox Talbot’s paper-based negative/positive process, also announced in 1839, became widely practiced and rendered moot the problem of converting the daguerreotype into a workable printing plate. Talbot’s calotype negatives yielded hundreds of identical prints that could be mounted or tipped-in to albums and printed books.

However ubiquitous, Talbot’s process was expensive, labor intensive, dependent on variable weather conditions, and, most importantly—as Talbot embarrassingly discovered— impermanent. While a high degree of attention could be applied to the handling of single prints, quality could not be guaranteed when produced in quantity. Unfortunately, and to his horror, Talbot discovered the fading problem only after publishing The Pencil of Nature, the first commercially published book completely illustrated with photographs. The final blow to Talbot’s calotypes came in 1846 when he agreed to supply 7,000 original prints for the influential monthly periodical, The Art-Union, with the intention of demonstrating photography’s potential to a wider audience. The photographs began to fade soon after they were disseminated throughout the art community (Schaff Sun Pictures p.8). For this reason, Talbot began his experiments in photogravure. In fact, many historians are surprised to learn that Talbot spent the majority of his career working on photogravures, and was still working on them at the time of his death in 1877.

France 18501870

While Talbot was working in Britain, scientist, artists and photographers in France were also working hard to solve the problem of photographic permanence. Although Niépce de Saint Victor (cousin of Nicéphore Niépce) and Charles Nègre had already made strides towards image permanence, the now-famous international competition ultimately catalyzed the effort. In 1856, Honoré d’Albert, duc de Luynes, an enlightened patron of the arts, an archaeologist, a painter and a photographer himself, established a substantial 8,000 franc prize to stimulate the “zeal of the inventor who could succeed in reproducing photographic prints by the ordinary methods of printing” (Photographic Journal, volume 12). Although an entire book could (and should) be written about this competition, three of the finalists are particularly worthy of note and are covered in-depth on this site: Charles Nègre, Paul Pretsch, and Alphonse Poitevin. Ultimately, and unfortunately for photogravure, Poitevin won the prize for a photolithographic process. Although it was not as objectively beautiful as photogravure, the photolithographic process was easily adaptable to industry and cost effective—prerequisites for the competition.

Karl Klíč & the Dust-Grain Photogravure

By the late 1860s, as industry attention turned towards Poitevin’s photolithographic process, Talbot – perhaps still reeling from the embarrassment of his fading prints in the Pencil of Nature and Art-Union – continued to work on photogravure. Over time, Talbot improved many aspects of the process, including the base, etchant, and resist used, and was especially focused on accurately reproducing continuous tone— one of the greatest challenges facing all photomechanical process. His early landmark discovery—what he called his ‘Photographic Veil’— resulted from experiments making plates of overlapping gauze. He discovered that breaking up large tonal areas into smaller dots using screens resulted in the appearance of continuous tone when viewed from a slight distance. This concept, the essence of the half-tone printing process, eventually became a printing industry standard. But Talbot, seeking a more organic and nuanced result, replaced the defined screen pattern with the more “random and natural” dust of aquatint resin ground, resulting in a beautiful half-tone impression.

In 1879, Karl Klíc, a painter living in Vienna, patented an improvement on Talbot’s process that allowed for deeper etched shadows. In addition, Klíc invented a technique of transferring the negative image to a copper plate by way of gelatin-coated carbon paper. The superior results yielded the official Talbot-Klíc photogravure process. While keeping the process secret, Klíc sold licenses for its use to well-known printing firms in Europe; however, by 1886 the process had been published in full detail, making it available to anyone. By the late 1880s, Klíc’s photogravure process was widely used to illustrate limited edition books and portfolios of the highest quality— a process technically and artistically superior to any previous method to date.

Emerson & Naturalistic Photography

“The artist who works in photography must not rest until he has mastered photo-etching: then he is completely equipped, and ranks with the etcher…for in etchings of all kind the choice of papers and inks is most vital. I hope in the future to print my own plates which I see is the only satisfactory method.”  P.H. Emerson

The invention of the Talbot-Klíc process coincided with Peter Henry Emerson’s pursuit of photography as a fine art. In his 1889 groundbreaking book, Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Arts, he wrote that for a photograph to be “truthful” it should be soft and impressionistic, bringing it closer to what he considered the appearance of nature and, therefore, closer to art. A dedicated student of the arts, he was influenced and inspired by the naturalist school of painters dominated by Jean-François Millet, who emphasized landscapes and peasant scenes rendered in low tones and softened atmosphere. With these artists in mind, Emerson pushed the impressionistic rendition of light, atmosphere, and mood, finding photogravures suitable in his pursuit.

As a physician, Emerson was familiar with the optical theories of Hermann von Helmholtz, who posited that the human eye only registered a single object of attention in sharp focus, with the rest of the visual field more softly defined. Going against the popularity and assumed superiority of Henry Peach Robinson’s circle, who believed a photograph should be precise and detailed, Emerson developed an aesthetic based on Helmholtz’s selective, or differential, focus. He admired the photogravure’s softened image and delicate tonal scale, and ultimately learned to etch and print his own photogravure plates, finding it the only satisfactory way to publish his work.

Within the field, Emerson first believed that photogravures deserved the designation of original prints. Between 1887 and 1895, Emerson’s photogravures illustrated five books, and thus can be considered some of the earliest examples of fine art pictorial photogravures. Emerson was equally forward thinking in the presentation and limitation of his photographs, effectively destroying his plates and negatives after completing small editions. A prolific and opinionated writer, Emerson sparked great debate over the unique artistic potential of photography, questioning whether the mechanical process could be harnessed to express emotions comparable with painting, sculpture, and music. Ultimately, his use of differential focus, in combination with the atmospheric qualities of photogravure, resulted in innovative and sublime images. While these images were practically forgotten until the late-twentieth century, they now place him in the history of the medium as one of its most important and influential figures.

Pictorialism & the Photo-Secession

By the 1880s, due in large part to the advent of Kodak’s hand camera, photography became accessible to the masses. More serious amateur photographers, inspired by Emerson’s ideas and images, began to further explore the medium’s expressive potential resulting in the first truly international photographic movement. The Pictorialism Movement in photography was characterized by painterly photographic techniques involving soft focus lenses and heavily manipulated printing processes. The movement represented a shift from Emerson’s Naturalism to photographers creatively expressing their inner soul.

Pictorial photographers, considering themselves elite artists, began to form exclusive groups and clubs with a mission to convince a skeptical public of photography’s fine-arts potential. As clubs and organizations emerged advocating the expressive power of the photograph, so too did lavish journals containing lush photogravure prints. For example, the Vienna Camera Club, Linked Ring Brotherhood of Britain, Photo-Club de Paris and Circle d’Art Photographique of Brussels all published journals and exhibition catalogs featuring exquisite hand-pulled photogravures.

The confluence of the success of Pictorialism and the photogravure was not by chance. Influential photographers, especially James Craig Annan, aimed to blur the line between photography and etching. By employing the techniques of the etcher when working the photogravure plate, Annan could create tone, enhance movement, and subjugate unwanted detail, simplifying his images and tactfully rendering mood. Annan believed the craft of ink-printed photographs sustained the aura of the artist, and that photogravure’s unique aesthetic could play an essential role in not only the creation of Pictorial art but also in the dissemination of Pictorialist works. Pictorial photographs, enhanced through soft-focus lenses and printing processes like photogravure, helped to convey the qualities of fine etchings, charcoal drawings, and watercolor paintings.

While the art world acknowledged the influence that photogravures had in establishing photography as a fine art, the publishing industry deferred to more economical and efficient reproduction techniques, namely the rotogravure and the half-tone processes. These processes lacked the depth of ink and beautiful hand-made qualities of photogravure, but they were faster, cheaper, and perfectly acceptable to the general public’s less discerning eye. As a result, by the turn of the century, only the most dedicated fine art photographers and printers practiced the hand-pulled Talbot-Klic photogravure process.

Camera Notes and Camera Work

“Compressing tonal scale and reducing detail, Stieglitz was a master at extracting nuance in tone” (Crawford).

Alfred Stieglitz, considered the driving force of fine-art photography in America at the turn of the century, was fully aware of the expressive potential of photogravure, as evident in his 1894 limited-edition portfolio, Picturesque Bits of New York and Other Studies. The twelve large plates, printed by Walter Woodbury and closely supervised by Stieglitz himself, represent outstanding examples of Stiglitz’s early work— prints that he did not hesitate to sign.

Active in New York’s photography scene, Stieglitz encouraged the New York Camera Club to replace their leaflet, Journal, with a new publication, Camera Notes, in 1897. Although Camera Notes contained beautiful photogravures and was considered a success, Stieglitz became frustrated with political forces within the organization, believing that they were diluting the impact of the journal. In 1902 he separated from the Camera Club and formed the Photo-Secession, whose sole mission was to “promulgate the cause of pictorial photography as a contemporary art form” (1).

Stieglitz used his own journal, Camera Workas a vehicle for achieving this mission. He placed the highest priority on Camera Work’s photogravures to “interpret fully the spirit and quality of the original print” (3). Many of the gravure plates were made directly from original negatives and were often supervised, and sometimes even etched and printed, by the artists themselves. Camera Work‘s photogravures so successfully simulated the tonal and tactile qualities of the Pictorialist printing style that in 1904, when the Photo-Secession’s platinum and gum prints intended for an exhibition in Brussels failed to arrive on time, Camera Work gravures were hung in their place. The show was a great success, and it was not disclosed until the show was over that that the prints were actually photogravures.

By 1909 new ideas permeated throughout the art world and enthusiasm for Pictorialism began to wane. Stieglitz recognized this shift, and in 1910, he began showcasing avant-garde modern artists, such as Rodin, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso— a move which alienated his photography-centered subscriber base and prompted the gradually declined of Camera Works.

Ironically, in 1917 the final two issues of Camera Work introduced a young new photographer, Paul Strand, whose work eschewed the soft approach of Pictorialism in exchange for a straight style that for the first time emphasized clear lines and forms of ordinary objects. Strand’s images featured dark shadows, strong contrast, and employed disorienting camera positions, prompting Stieglitz to call the work “brutally direct,” “Devoid of any ‘ism,’” and “the direct expression of today.” For Stieglitz, Strand’s straight photography called for a departure in the photogravure printing style that for so long was the foundation of Camera Work’s success. Stieglitz retired the delicate, tactile tissue and warm inks he had relied on for so many years in exchange for brighter, heavier paper, and cooler inks. The resulting prints were for the first time intended to be raw and harsh. Stieglitz, considering them the new and ultimate realization of photography as a fine art, abandoned any interest in Pictorialism and with Pictorialism went his interest in photogravure. There is no evidence of Stieglitz working in or with photogravures after the Strand issues of Camera Work.

Straight Photography, Modernism, and the Avante-Guard

As a style, straight photography respected the medium’s technical visual language of sharp focus and rich detail, features that contradicted photogravure’s sentimental, pictorial aesthetic. In addition, photogravure was difficult, expensive, and time consuming. Despite the odds stacked against photogravures, and as a true testament to their allure, photogravures continued to thrive throughout the 1920s and 1930s.  In fact, this period produced some of the most ambitious and beautiful portfolios of photographic images ever realized in photogravure. In Roll Jordan Roll, Doris Ulmann rendered in photogravure ninety photographs of the vanishing black culture of the south as tactile as charcoal drawings. Like Coburn, Ulmann’s images strike a delicate balance straddling the emotive qualities of pictorialsm and graphic qualities of modernism.  That same year, in Photographs of Mexico, Strand again tapped into the rich depth, acuity and texture of photogravure, this time to convey the quiet and somber state of the war-torn people and the landscape impoverished by the Mexican Revolution.  Unlike Ulmann’s prints however, Strand’s photogravures were sharp, clean and crisp.

As its antithesis, photogravure even found a place in the Avant-Guarde. Drtikol’s modernist nudes in Nus de Drtikol (1929), Man Ray’s dynamic deep black “Rayograms” in Electicite (1931), and Laurie Albin Guillot’s bizarrely sublime shimmering abstractions in Micrographie Décorative (1931) all used photogravure in modern portfolios, despite its difficulty and expense.

Unfortunately, circumstances surrounding World War Two finally brought photogravure to its knees. Increasing aesthetic, social, and political fragmentation, along with all the financial and emotional costs of war, resulted ultimately in its extinction.

Contemporary Photogravure

“That which is too easily obtained, is rarely prized, and becoming common, it does not afford that stimuli which impels men onward in their pursuits, and leads to the improvement of every department of science and art.” –Hunt, Robert, A Popular Treatise on the Art of Photography. 1841

The modern printmaking standard of glossy paper, overall sharpness, and smooth, broad tones has had a monopoly over artistic photographic printing, especially as passed down by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Minor White. However, since the 1960s, a number of photographers have begun to re-examine the options in photogravure printmaking. Jon Goodman, driven by “the philosophy of craft—of making something well” with much tenacity, sweat, and persistence, finally rediscovered the process in the late 1970s. “It was something that was literally dead,” he recalls, “and such a mystery, that simply trying to find out where I could go to learn, who knew about it, was almost impossible.” Supported by Hazel Strand (Paul’s widow) and Richard Benson, Jon eventually became the world’s expert in photogravure making and partnered with Michael Hoffman, director of the Aperture Foundation, to produce multiple portfolios, including The Early Years by Steichen, executed on Steichen’s request shortly before his death. It is doubtful weather Stieglitz or Strand would ever consider these Aperture prints originals; that being said, there are images in the portfolio that that I am sure Steichen, if he were alive, would not hesitate to sign, raising the age-old question about photogravures and their status as original art. The question is answered, however, by Roy DeCarava’s Twelve Photographs, a portfolio printed in 1990 by Paul Taylor of Renaissance Press. DeCarava’s style—smooth, silky, smoky and gentle—was a perfect fit for the photogravure aesthetic. Working directly with Taylor, DeCarava closely supervised the production and signed the edition of prints. It is the lucky collector or institution that has a set.

Once again, as if history is repeating itself, photogravures are being tapped for their emotive nuance, referring viewers to their own “contemplative associations” – whether it is to Lothar Osterburg’s faraway romantic, ideal universe, or the ParkeHarrison’s constructed stories of loss and struggle amid landscapes scarred by technology and over-use. Adam Fuss turns to photogravure for his cameraless photography, perhaps inspired by Man Ray’s photograms from Electricite. Fuss’s life size photogravure contact print of a child’s dress achieves the illusion of floating above an abyss of thick, deep, matte black printers ink.

What is the current state of photogravure? Photographer and gallerist William Thomas sums it up eloquently,  “Through the photogravure shines a dedication to craft and truth – and something more, something ineffable and profound – a stillness, a sense of dignity and place in prints still with us, but fading fast from today’s instant-gratification, throw-away culture that celebrates superfluous surface glitz and visual promiscuity as a kind of random, “drive-by” art.” When the marriage of image and print process is so successful and prints are as compelling as any art, past or present, there is confidence that photogravure’s future will be bright.

Want to learn more? Take a look at the Texts page for a deeper dive…