52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 22: the beauty of the photogravure

This week’s inspiring illustrations post is about a photo-mechanical process which I’ve always found to be one of the most evocative ways or reproducing photographs using the permanence of ink: the photogravure.

Lady Ruthven, ca.1845 by Hill and Adamson, published in Camera Work XI, 1905.

These are objects which need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated, as it is not only the rendition of the image which is of importance, but also the fibrous texture, tone, and weight of the paper which impart another dimension to the photograph which may not have existed in the original.

From the first time I lay eyes on a Camera Work, photogravure, followed by seeing an exhibition which had a gravure by Ray Metzker, I’ve appreciated the diverse range of tones, colours and mood that are obtained from this painstaking process. For me, it’s the cream of all photo-mechanical reproduction!

Three photogravures from Osvald Sirén’s The walls and gates of Peking (1924).

The Minnow Pool, ca. 1845 by Hill and Adamson,
Printed as a Photogravure in Camera Work XXVIII, 1909.

Detail of a fern from Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der kunst (1928).

Technically, the successful execution of a photogravure is no small task. At its heart it is an intaglio process, which means that ink is applied to paper via thousands of tiny “channels” or pits etched into a metal plate which act as wells to hold the necessary amount of ink to form an image when a sheet of damp paper is pressed against it. The trick, is in navigating all the variables of each step required to make a plate in such a way that the tonal rendition of the image does not suffer from “blocked up shadows” due to too much ink, or highlights which lack the definition due to not enough. Each photograph being reproduced requires a different interpretation, and as such years of experience are required to master this process which is an art unto itself.

Initially developed in the 1830s and the result of French, English and Czech refinements, throughout the 19th and 20th century it was seen as a process which was so painstaking that it was reserved for only the finest publications. Due to this limited use, it is a process which has a cult following but also a limited number of practitioners. We’re very fortunate to hold many fine examples of this fabulous process in our Special Collections.

Sir John Herschel, 1867, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron. Photogravure from Camera Work printed 1913 (left) and photogravure from Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his friends printed 1893 (right).

Beyond the works held in our Photographic Collection, there’s a treasure trove of Photographic Books illustrated which should not be missed. Follow this link to see examples from our library’s collection. Also, keep an eye on Lux which has recently featured one of the greatest photogravure books ever made.


2 responses to “52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 22: the beauty of the photogravure

  1. Pingback: 52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 40: The Photographic Postcard | Echoes from the Vault·

  2. Pingback: 52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 46: A Marriage of Convenience — The Half-Tone Relief Process | Echoes from the Vault·

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