Photogravure: What is it?

Photogravure is a sophisticated photomechanical process that enables ‘continuous tone’ photographic detail to be etched into copper, then inked intaglio style and printed, under pressure through an etching press onto fine art paper. The manner in which the print’s tonal range is created through the deposition of different densities of ink on paper is unique to only Photogravure and its close cousins Collotype and Woodburytype  (all photomechanical printing processes originating in the mid 19th century and now somewhat lost to modern mainstream ‘halftone’ printing practices).

At the end of the 19th century the photogravure technique was appropriated from its then role as a photomechanical illustration medium for deluxe book publications and used instead by a group of influential photographers as a means of creating original, photographic prints that were rendered in permanent ink on paper. These artists included Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand. Edward Steichen and Julia Margaret Cameron. The richly evocative aesthetic they achieved, established an ongoing respect for the medium that has subsequently been tapped and explored by a long line of influential artists such as Robert Rauchenberg, Chuck Close, Richard Hamilton right up to its recent use by Tacita Dean and Ellen Gallagher.

While the traditional process has remained relatively unchanged since its refinement by Karel Klic in 1879, a new approach has emerged over the last two decades through the use of industrial photopolymer printing plates. Although these plates are specifically intended for the letterpress printing industry, a largely artist led adaption of their use has led to the creation of an alternative means for producing fine, continuous tone, photogravure style imagery. Despite the procedure for producing ‘photopolymer gravure’ plates being somewhat different to that of traditional copperplate photogravure, the resulting prints essentially bear all the hallmarks of the traditional photogravure aesthetic – with the finely toned, aquatint style image being rendered in different densities of ink on paper. The only minor difference between the two is that, (if so required), traditional gravure plates can be retouched and modified after the initial etching procedure has been undertaken by directly working into the copper plate using various etching tools. Photopolymer gravure plates on the other hand are less flexible in this respect and cannot be directly retouched after exposure and development. Another minor difference is that a traditionally produced photogravure prints can be visually identified by the plate emboss mark around the edge of the print which, due to the ability of the copper printing plates to be filed and bevelled, results in a softer emboss. Photopolymer gravure on the other hand can only be produced with a sharper more pronounced plate mark around the edge of the image.

Creatively speaking, both techniques offer much the same imaging scope for the artist with its finely grained continuous tone capabilities enabling all kinds of imagery to be translated into the sumptuous tones of an aquatint style print.

I use both traditional copper plate photogravure and photopolymer gravure for my work. Although photogravure has traditionally been used by artists to create purely photographic subjects, the work I choose to produce in gravure tends to mix graphic and photographic elements that have been combined through photomontage techniques. Due to my frequent use of images that have been appropriated from old engraved illustrations and digitally manipulated to form new artworks, I like to use the ability of gravure to authentically re- reference the physical presence of these sources in the final artwork. This in turn enables a timeless and often illusive quality to be invoked and infused into the work.

For more info and examples of photogravure: