What is Photogravure?

Photogravure was developed in the late nineteenth century as an image making method more permanent and more reproducible than the existing silver-based photographic processes.  There was a growing need to reproduce photographic images in books and other publications.  The photogravure, which was printed with ink on rag paper, provided a continuous range of tones, greatly improving on letterpress, the existing method of reproducing photographs for publication.  Although used primarily as a reproduction method, the process attracted the attention of many photographers who manipulated their plates to give special artistic effects to their prints.

Copper plate photogravure (called heliogravure in Europe) blends photographic and etching processes giving a combination of the best traits of each.  The procedure involves three basic steps: making the original photograph, transferring the image to the copper plate, then printing the plate.  The whole process is painstakingly exact and complex, demanding both attention to detail and intuitive judgment. The following is an abbreviated description of the technique.  A transparent film positive must be made from the original negative to the size of the eventual print.  A gelatin coated paper (carbon tissue) is made light sensitive by soaking in a potassium dichromate solution.  The film positive is then exposed to this tissue by an ultraviolet light source.  A very fine random-patterned screen is also exposed to the tissue to give the plate texture, or “tooth,” to hold the ink later.  This can alternatively be created on the plate by using aquatint grains dusted on and then heated.  The tissue is then adhered in a water bath to a copper plate which has been carefully polished and cleaned.  The backing paper of the tissue is peeled away and the image is then “developed” in the water to create a “resist” image on the copper plate in preparation for etching.  The plate is etched in a series of progressively more penetrating ferric chloride baths, producing an etched image in the copper of varying depths according to the thickness of the resist.  The plate is then re-touched or modified using traditional methods if desired.  The plate is inked, wiped, and run through an intaglio press in combination with dampened printing paper, producing the final image.

After 1918, flat-plate hand-pulled photogravure printing quickly lost ground to quicker and cheaper mechanical printing methods.  Despite the fact that such photographic pioneers as Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand considered photogravure the esthetic summit of picture making, the method soon became just a glorious memory.  Decades later, exhaustive research by several artists working independently helped to resurrect the fine-art techniques of photogravure, and by the mid-1970s the process was reborn.

Originally revered by traditional photographers for its deep shadow areas, velvety middle tones and delicate highlights, a handful of artists are now adapting the process to a number of creative translations of the original negative, such as multi-plate color printing.  In addition to the practically infinite variety of darkroom techniques that are available, the process allows for significant innovative handwork in both plate-making and printing.  Skilled photographer/printmakers can thus celebrate the century-old ideal of combining art and craft while producing stunning contemporary work.