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Contemporary Photogravure 

Contemporary photogravure is a miracle of persistence. The early 19th-century gravures of William Talbot and Nicéphore Niépce built on discoveries in optics, light-sensitive materials, and etching technique from centuries earlier. Not until well after mid-century were gravurists able to attain the clarity and definition exhibited by daguerrotypes, which despite much effort, could not be used as printing plates and were therefore limited to editions of one. Numerous variations involving electro-plating, lithography, mold-making, and others failed to attain the sought-for combination of practicality, clarity, and depth. Several decades were required to develop photogravure to the point where it could serve as both a publication and fine-art medium.
In the work of Peter Henry Emerson during the 1880s and 1890s, these two aims coalesced exquisitely with his poetic evocations of rural life in coastal England. As the 20th century dawned, Alfred Stieglitz and others presented their best photos as Camera Work gravures. For publication purposes, photogravure was soon eclipsed in the 1920s by faster and cheaper printing methods, and by a photographic style that favored momentary action over the pictorial, soft-focus style that typified 19th-century photogravure. Photogravure re-emerged in the 1970s with renewed discovery of its extraordinary tonal range and depth. It has proved particularly attractive to those practitioners and collectors who view it not as a document or reproduction, but as an original art form.
The prints selected for this exhibit were all conceived for and executed in photogravure. Each print is entirely the work of one artist, in whose work the photo, platemaking, etching, and printing, are inseparably blended to create images unique to this medium.
As all who practice it would acknowledge, photogravure is unforgiving of the slightest error. The basic photogravure technique is to expose a resist (a coating that blocks or regulates the penetration of etchant to the copperplate) through a positive transparency with ultraviolet light, adhere the exposed resist to a copperplate, etch the plate, and print the etched plate on a press. The embossed platemark distinguishes intaglio prints such as photogravures from other types of prints such as lithographs and woodcuts. An upstream flaw in density, exposure, chemical purity, or resist adhesion cascades into a downstream disaster and the scrapping of several days‘ work. Variations in climate, ambient temperature and humidity, chemical purity and concentration, ink, paper, and numerous other materials and conditions critically determine the final appearance of a photogravure etching. All the more wondrous, then, that not only is contemporary photogravure alive and well, but practitioners and collectors around the world are re-discovering its unique and mysterious appeal.
Everyone working in photogravure, it seems, varies the basic technique according to their own experience. Some use finely powdered asphaltum or rosin fused to the plate as an aquatint grain, others use random-pattern screens. The resist might be dried with alcohol, fans, or dehumidifiers. The copperplate can be cleaned with soy sauce, acetic acid plus salt, whiting, lye (sodium hydroxide), or combinations of these in various orders. Some prefer multiple etching baths of different concentrations, others prefer single-bath etching. Etching paper can be prepared by soaking, misting, wet-packing under pressure, running it through the press before printing, or by various combinations of these. Some practitioners grind their own etching inks, some use special printing techniques such as chine colle (adhering a very thin sheet to a thicker sheet of etching paper while printing). Even such a seemingly mundane matter as drying the finished print has variations (flattening versus air-drying). Although it is possible to become overly involved in technique, all of these variations are merely resources for the particular feeling or state of mind we seek to evoke with the print.
Inspiration for the prints in this exhibit came from the artists‘ wanderings in Italy, France, Belgium, the American West, Hawaii, Japan. Mongolia, and Laos, and from as near as their own studios or backyards; and from their own experiments. There are landscapes, seascapes, closups, nudes, representations, abstracts, fantasies, collages, still-lifes, and interiors. They are printed with a variety of inks -- black, sepia, burnt umber, ultramarine -- on a variety of etching papers and Japanese washi. Dimensions vary from intimate to large-scale. Some favor precise observation of natural forms, others fantasies, still others soft-focus mystery. Some use a painterly style, with color as well as tone and texture, and freely modify perspective or detail to achieve a certain composition.
Photogravure is one of several 19th-century techniques currently enjoying a renaissance among both practitioners and collectors. These include bromoil, salt prints, platinum prints, albumen prints, daguerrotypes, wet-collodion, cyanotypes, and numerous variations. While it is interesting to experience what our predecessors went through in producing the first photographs, there is much more to this renaissance of 19th-century techniques than mere antiquarian interest. What contemporary practitioners seek is the hand-made object, to recover the vision and the touch that animate the graphic arts. As is often the case in the arts, something old is also something new. These 19th-century techniques enable us to see our contemporary world in a new way, not filtered through the mass media, but rather as if directly. Their freshness comes through clearly even on a computer screen.
Photogravure etching in particular conveys texture, depth, and subtlety of tone. Contemporary practitioners of photogravure have dedicated their efforts to this ‘miracle of persistence‘ not to replicate what others have done, but to add something new to our mass-media-impoverished modes of perception. Many things are lacking in our visual monoculture, but one that may stand for all is texture, and that is the quality that distinguishes all the photogravures in this exhibit.
These prints reveal the three-dimensional quality of photogravure texture, that unique play of form that comes from variable-depth etching. Sensitive to the most minute variations of tone, images in photogravure enable the viewer to experience anew the wonderful variety of our visual world -- waters placid or flowing, the grit of desert sand, tree-filtered light, craggy cliffs, rock vortices, female forms overprinted with rough-textured walls, architectural detail, roof-thatch, jewelry, fish scales, tortoise shells, seashells, rust, metallic inlays, the veins of swiss chard or taro root, flowers intricate, elegiac, or apparition-like, seaweed, Japanese roof tiles... What a marvelous bounty awaits everyone -- and not just artists -- who can see into the depth and texture of things. For each element of the physical world has its own spirit, which gives it transcendent significance.
Peter Miller (April 30, 2007) 



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