What is a photogravure?

Photogravure, also known as heliogravure, is a complex intaglio printing process that photographically transfers an image to a plate and then to the page. After the image has been transferred to the plate, it is then etched onto it before being printed onto paper. The results are of incredibly high-quality.

Photogravure was developed at the same time as photography in the first half of the 19th century by the two original pioneers of the photographic medium. In the 1820s, the Frenchman Joseph Niépce made his first attempts to reproduce etchings with the help of photogravure. His images or daguerreotypes are considered to be among the first photographs ever taken. In Britain during the 1850s, Henry Fox Talbot developed similar techniques, using the photogravure process to create images that would not fade. However, photogravure in its mature form was not developed until the late 1870s by Czech painter Karel Klíč. He first included pigment paper in the process of photo technical transfer in 1879 and is regarded as the inventor of photogravure process.

There are two steps to the process. Firstly, a copper plate is coated with a light-sensitive gelatine tissue which is then exposed to the light from a photographic image. The gelatine hardens where the light falls, and remains soft where light doesn’t. Following this step, the plate is etched down to different depths according to the hardness of the gelatine. The result of this is a highly defined intaglio plate that can reproduce in great detail the tones of the original photographic image. The printing plate is etched to a different depth according to the finest tonal values, which can be printed after removal of the remaining gelatine using the gravure printing process.

See examples of photogravure in artworks such as Gerhard Richter's Landscape I / Landschaft I, 1971, Eberhard Havekost’s Kupfer 1 – 4, 2007, or Gerhard Merz’s Ed io anche son architetto (veronese), 1989.


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