Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process

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A hybrid approach to photogravure on copperplate

We contacted Jon Goodman, an expert photogravure printer who, amongst other things, prints portfolios for Aperture and 21st. His telephone advice to two desperate novices was what was needed to make another leap forward. A serendipitous discovery was that a symposium on photogravure was to be held at GraphicStudio at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, in March of We felt that this opportunity should not be missed.

There were many practitioners from all over the United States, with one or two each from Sweden, England, and Canada. It was good to see that we were not alone. Above all else, it encouraged us by illustrating the dedication of those attending and the growth of interest in the medium. We resumed our testing and soon achieved even more successful prints. Encouraged, we arranged funding for an advanced, private workshop with Jon Goodman. When we resumed our research using this new understanding along with our own obsessive working methods, we were soon making successful prints with consistency and predictability.

We wrote it in order to provide a clear and detailed methodology for the dedicated practitioner who wants to rediscover this wonderful image-making process. David Morrish and Marlene MacCallum, Acknowledgments We would like to thank everyone who has helped us along the long and tortuous path to learning the beautiful photogravure process and the equally tortuous path of putting together this book.

Those who helped us bring this book to a higher level of usefulness deserve our utmost thanks. We thank Jon Goodman for his patience and advice and for sharing his indepth knowledge of the process. Sandy King deserves our gratitude for the enormous amount of work he did adjusting his carbon printing tissue for use as gravure tissue. In a very short time Richard Benson, Dean of the Yale School of Art, enabled us to re-evaluate our technique and showed us how to see a photogravure print in a broader tonal scale, allowing us to see beyond the usually dark tonal scale we work with.

To those artists who shared their wonderful images and allowed them to be included in this book, we are greatly appreciative: Jon Goodman, Steve Dixon, and Lothar Osterburg. Closer to home, we have always appreciated the amazing library assistance we have been given by Elizabeth Behrens, Associate University Librarian at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College. The chemistry staff and faculty at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College have been generous in so many ways.

In particular, Dr. Holly Pike, Associate Professor, English, gave us important assistance with writing, structure, and clarity in earlier drafts. Geoff Rayner-Canham. Mark Katzman, a true believer in the beauty of photogravure, was most generous with his time and collection. For additional image assistance and access to their collections, we thank Steven Albahari from 21st, Vincent FitzGerald, and Grant Ball.

Photogravure is the only intaglio process, other than the Woodburytype, that gives an apparently continuous tone image. It should be made clear that photogravure is not photo-etching. This latter process is made up of dots of ink on paper— a halftone pattern. The photo-etching resist is made up of tiny areas that are totally protected from the etch and areas that are totally exposed to the etch.

There is no half-way, no migration of ferric chloride through gelatin, no smooth tones. Although it gives the semblance of tone, it is not a continuous tone process. There is often confusion with the terminology, especially when discussing photogravure with a Francophone printmaker. In French, gravure is virtually any intaglio process, and photogravure is used to describe what we call photo-etching in English. When describing photogravures to a European audience, it is necessary to use the local terms.

Photogravure Plates, Resists Question

Photogravure is a photo-imaging technique that remains one of the most satisfyingly beautiful image-making processes. The rich depths and detailed tonalities of a photogravure print are unparalleled. It gives a combination of the best traits of both intaglio and photography on one archival support.

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The range of possibilities of ink color and paper qualities is endless. Unlike most other photo-imaging processes, copper plate photogravure allows the print-artist the opportunity to rework, adjust, alter, and present the image in unique ways. The potential for the physical alteration of the copper plate provides yet another realm of expressive variation. Besides the advantage of unlimited possibilities for interpretation of the image, the photogravure plate can be absolutely faithful to the information on the original negative. The subject matter and its treatment are as variable and broad as photography itself.

The revitalization of the traditional photogravure print has been slow and arduous and requires the dedication of modern practitioners who appreciate its unique qualities. Photogravures most often rotogravures used in publication are different things. They arose from a need for the mass production of photographic images that were archival, or at least longer lasting than nineteenth century salt and albumen prints.

They made possible the inclusion of images and text on a single page and have allowed high quality images to appear in print beginning at a time in history when halftones were inferior or nonexistent.

Two other main advantages of rotogravures are the speed of production and the durability of the rotogravure cylinder. Since the nineteenth century, many images have been published using rotogravure or sheet-fed mechanized gravure also called mezzogravure. The quality of these publications varies from poor to excellent, but more often than not, they exceed what one would normally expect of black and white half tone reproductions.

This book is an exploration of the technical processes involved in making a photogravure using currently available materials.


Its purpose is to demystify and clarify what is ultimately a complex but altogether do-able photomechanical process. Anyone with dedication and some basic knowledge of photography and printmaking can hope to achieve respectable results. The information that follows builds on many of the English language texts printed since the s. Not a lot has changed over time; even many of the specialized materials tend to be the same. Once the etch is completed, the gelatin resist is removed from the plate.

PHOTOGRAVURE - Definition and synonyms of photogravure in the English dictionary

The plate is cleaned, inked, wiped, and printed on an intaglio press, transferring the image in ink onto paper. Each layer has its own subtle but distinct language by virtue of the materials and their handling. These layers can be used to transform the information on the negative closer to a printmaking aesthetic or used to create a true facsimile of the negative closer to a photographic aesthetic or even photomechanical reproduction. The process is bracketed by stages that give the artist a range of aesthetic options: producing the negative and the positive, working the copper plate, and interpreting the image with ink on paper.

The process as a whole, however, is relatively safe. The most dangerous toxic materials are: the sensitizing agent, potassium dichromate which is required ; powdered asphaltum; and powdered ferric chloride both of which we suggest not using. Careful attention to safety is advised when working with any chemicals or solvents.

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Other substances used in photogravure and the printing of the plates are sometimes the cause of sensitivities and allergic reactions. Solvents and inks are commonly used by printmakers and have been discussed in manuals on printmaking safety. Ferric chloride is one of the least problematic mordants available when in solution. Nevertheless, all materials and equipment have their risks, especially when not used with caution and common sense. See Appendix A for a list of safety considerations and advice. The authors make no claims as to the safety or risk of using the materials and methods described in this book.

We urge the reader to research these materials and practice appropriate caution when using any potentially harmful materials or equipment. The ease of reproducibility has increased and the scope of dissemination has become instantly global. It was not long ago, however, when photography was mainly a chemical process—an image formed on paper or, more recently, a plastic support. When photography was invented in the s, the image-making process was even more physical.

A unique image was etched onto a metal plate through an acid resistant layer. He saw the potential of this process for quick, accurate reproduction of existing engravings Figure These prints, however, did not reproduce any of the smooth continuous tones we now associate with a photograph. Hippolyte Fizeau French: — devised a method using aquatint, etching, and even electroplating to create a printable daguerreotype plate. He displayed his pale prints from etched daguerreotypes to the French Academy of Science in the same year.

Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process
Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process
Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process
Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process
Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process
Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process

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