Monday, September 26, 2011

The History of Photogravure - Selections from the Farhat Art Museum Collection

Farhat Art Museum Collection

PHOTOGRAVURE HAS PLAYED AN ESSENTIAL ROLE in the origin and evolution of photography. Its history is inextricably intertwined with the earliest discoveries and pursuits of the medium. While initial interest in photogravure was motivated by an effort to solve technical problems, over time photogravure was practiced for its own distinct merits.

The history of photogravure also parallels the history of photography's struggle to be recognized as a fine art. Photographers like Peter Henry Emerson, Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Paul Strand made it their mission to open the eyes of the western world to the artistic potential of the medium of photography, and they relied on the supple and rich photogravure process to accomplish this end. Using photogravure they painstakingly produced books, journals and portfolios that enabled larger audiences, for the first time, to see and appreciate the aesthetic and artful capacity of photography. So enamored by the process, these photographers often chose photogravure for their own final prints.

What follows is a brief history of the relationship between the evolution of photogravure, and the art of photography.

Jerusalim - Farhat Art Museum Collection

Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce
AT ITS ORGIN, photography was intimately linked with printmaking. In 1829, ten years before Louis Daguerre announced the invention of photography, he formed a partnership with Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, who, in turn, had been experimenting with light-sensitive materials since the 1810s. Their efforts were motivated by the desire to make stable fixed images directly from nature, or to make "etchings by light."

Joseph-Nicephore Niepce
Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce
As early as 1814, Niépce had begun experimenting with light-sensitive varnish used in the new art of lithography. His landmark success came 12 years later when he reproduced the engraved portrait of Cardinal d'Amboise from a lithographic plate. To do this, he first coated a pewter plate with Bitumen of Judea (asphaltum), which by its nature is light sensitive. Then he covered the sensitized plate with the original waxed engraving and placed it in sunlight, which hardened the bitumen under the light areas of the image. The plate was then washed with a solvent, which washed away the unexposed areas of the image, and etched in an acid bath. After etching all of the bitumen was removed and the plate was printed with the traditional intaglio method. That same year, Niepce also succeeded making the first camera image showing a view out the window of his house and relying on the same materials and techniques borrowed from etching - bitumen of Judea on a pewter plate. Unfortunately Niépce's death in 1833 left Daguerre to pursue image making alone and, in 1840, he announced that he had developed the photographic process that bears his name. Daguerreotypes were magically precise mirror-like images produced on silver-plated copper. The new medium was quickly and enthusiastically embraced.
Building on Niépce's successes, in the early 1840s Hippolyte-Louis Fizeau modified the process. Fizeau's experimentation was motivated by the desire to make multiple copies of the recently announced daguerreotype, a one-of-a-kind photographic process. While Fizeau met with limited success, eventually his efforts were abandon as William Henry Fox Talbot's reproducible calotype paper photography became widely used.
William Henry Fox Talbot
TALBOT'S CALOTYPES faced another problem though, that of permanence. In an effort make photographs that would not fade over time, Talbot aggressively pursued photogravure, contributing two new developments to the process.

William Henry Fox Talbot
William Henry Fox Talbot
The first, which he patented in 1852, was his discovery that gelatin treated with potassium bichromate hardened when exposed to light. In subsequent refinements, this material was used as the acid resist in place of Niépce's bitumen. The second, was his recognition that some sort of screen was needed to break up the image area. Niépce's portrait already had a linear structure because it was produced from an engraving, but Talbot's images came directly from nature, and thus required a network of lines, so large etched areas of the plate would hold ink. At first he introduced a gauze mesh (his "photographic veil") that gave the plate a screen pattern over which he laid objects such as fern leaves, before exposing them to light. However, in 1858 he patented an improved technique of dusting the plate with a copal resin powder to give the image a finer and more even screen tint. At this time, he also began using waxed paper positives of his camera images to make prints that he called photoglyphic engravings. For Talbot, photogravure had been the logical evolution of his original invention of photography; transforming nature's sketches into permanent and beautiful printer's ink.

Karl Klic & the Dust-Grain Photogravure

Karl Klic
Karel Klíc, 1841 - 1926.

AS THE PROBLEMS OF PERMANENCE WERE SOLVED, the role of the photogravure evolved. It began to appeal to the publishing industry as an economical means of illustrating books.
In 1879, Karl Klíc, a painter living in Vienna patented an improved method for applying an aquatint grain to break up the image and allow for deeper etched shadows. In addition, Klíc invented a technique of transferring the image from a negative, to a copper plate by way of gelatin-coated carbon pigment paper. The results were superior and the Talbot-Klíc Dust-Grain gravure was born.
Keeping his process secret, Klíc sold licenses for its use to such well-known printing firms as T. & R. Annan and Sons, in Glasgow; Adolphe Braun and Company, in Parks; and the F. Bruckmann Verlag company in Munich. By 1886, however, the process had been published in full detail making it available to anyone.
"I beg to express my entire satisfaction with your gravure process... The process itself is very valuable to a fine art publisher because of the beauty of the work and the crafted manner in which the plates are executed. With many thanks to me and my son I remain, Dear Sir, yours very truly" - Thomas Annan
March 11, 1883

By the late 1880s, Klic's gravure process was often used to illustrate high-quality books with photographs—a process technically and artistically far superior to previous methods.


Peter Henry Emerson, The Poacher
Peter Henry Emerson, 1856 - 1936. Denotes An Original
The Poacher. 1888.
Photogravure print.
23.5 cm x 28.4 cm

Emerson & Naturalistic Photography

THE INVENTION OF THE Talbot-Klic process coincided with Peter Henry Emerson's pursuit of Naturalistic Photography. Emerson, a physician turned photographer, was the proponent of controversial ideas concerning photography and art. In his book entitled, "Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Arts" (1889) Emerson claimed that a sharp and uniform image does not accurately represent the way the world appears to our eyes. He believed that for a photograph to be "truthful" it should be soft and impressionistic, bringing it closer to what he considered the appearance of nature.
Because grain-gravure prints are not as sharp as actual photographs, Emerson preferred the gravure process. He admired the softened image and liked the delicate tonal scale possible with gravure. It was Emerson who first believed that gravures should be considered original prints.
Emerson's gravures were used to illustrate five books between 1887 and 1895, and can be considered some of the earliest examples of pictorial and fine art photographs.


Pictorialism & the Photo-Secession
INSPIRED BY EMERSON'S ideas and images, photographers began to explore the expressionistic potential of photography. This movement, known as Pictorialism, was characterized by painterly techniques involving soft focus lenses and heavily manipulated printing processes like gum bichromate and bromoil. George Davison's famous image, The Onion Field, is an early example of an impressionistic or pictorial photograph. Its soft focus was achieved using a pinhole lens.
Pictorial photographers considered themselves serious amateurs—motivated by artistic forces rather than those of financial gain. In Europe they formed salons and clubs like The Linked Ring Brotherhood, The Royal Photographic Society (of England) and The Photo-Club of Paris. And in America in 1902, Stieglitz established the group called the Photo-Secession. He chose the name "Secession" because of its use by some societies of avant-garde artists in Germany and Austria to denote their independence from the academic establishment.
Photogravure proved to be an effective tool for the pictorialists, aiding in their mission to convince a skeptical audience that photography had significant expressive potential. For once, the qualities of gravure enabled them to more accurately reproduce the subtle and beautiful character of their images in books, journals and limited editioned portfolios.
The value of photogravure in establishing photography as a fine art was emerging.


Camera Notes and Camera work
WHEN IN AMERICA THE SOCIETY for Amateur Photographers merged with the New York Camera Club in 1897, Alfred Stieglitz recognized an opportunity to inaugurate a publication that would promote the efforts of the Pictorialists to a larger audience as well as stimulate artistic efforts in photography. He presented a plan for an illustrated quarterly that would replace their leaflet, Journal. The new publication Camera Notes became his vehicle.

Alfred Stiegletz
Frank Eugene. 1865-1936. Denotes An Original
Mr. Alfred Stiegletz. 1909.
Photogravure print. 16.4 x 11.2 cm
Stieglitz demanded that the plates in Camera Notes serve as more than a record of what was being produced in the photographic world; they had to "interpret fully the spirit and quality of the original print." The photogravure process was uniquely suited to reproduce these subtle prints. Many of the gravure plates in Camera Notes and later in Camera Work were made from positives, made from the original negatives. Because they were often supervised and sometimes even etched and printed by the artists themselves, these gravures were considered equivalents to the original prints. After suffering from a low tolerance to political pressure, Stieglitz resigned as editor of Camera Notes and in 1903 launched his own publication, Camera Work. Camera Work is today considered to be the single best-known example of gravure printing. It so successfully simulated the tonal and tactile qualities of the Pictorialist printing style, that in 1904 when the Photo-Secession contribution to an exhibit in Brussels failed to arrive on time, Camera Work gravures were hung in their place. The show was a great success, however it was not generally known that the prints were gravures until the show was over.
Today, Camera Work is credited as the mechanism that enabled Stieglitz and his followers to succeed in their mission to have photography recognized as a legitimate fine art.


Straight Photography
THE FINAL ISSUES of Camera Work were illustrated with images by newcomer, Paul Strand. For the first time these gravures, printed on a heavier stock, have come to represent a turning point in the history of the medium. Stieglitz wrote of Strand, "... The work is brutally direct. Devoid of flim-flam; devoid of trickery and any 'ism'; devoid of any attempt to mystify an ignorant public, including the photographers themselves. These photographs are the direct expression of today..." Straight Photography was born.
And with Pictorialsm went the popularity of the hand-pulled dust-grain photogravure. The less expensive rotogravure process had found its foothold in the publishing marketplace and coincided with the strong, sharp and clean printing style of the new era of photographers. There were holdouts however. In 1933, Doris Ulmann's "Roll Jordan Roll" beautifully documented the vanishing culture of African American tenant farmers in lush photogravure. And in 1937, Adolph Fassbender published "Pictorial Artistry", considered to be one of the most lavish books ever printed in photogravure.
Many consider Paul Strand's portfolio, Photographs of Mexico issued in 1940, the finest photogravures ever made. In this seminal body of work, Strand relies on the rich depth and texture of photogravure to convey the quiet and somber state of the Mexican people and the landscape of a war-torn country impoverished by revolution.

Beirut - Farhat Art Museum Collection

Sabra & Shatilla Massacre 1982 - Lebanese Photo Bank Collection