Currently on view at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts is work by the Iraqi artist Sama Alshaibi (b. 1973). Her series Carry Over includes beautifully created photogravures to re-contextualize the male gaze by personally recreating historical Orientalist photographs. While most people understand how a traditional photograph is made, many are unclear exactly what a photogravure is and how it fits into the history of photography.

Sama Alshaibi, Gamer, Photogravure (2019)

Simply put, creating a photogravure involves using a photograph or negative to etch an image into a copper plate with light and chemicals, then printing it traditionally with ink on paper. So technically, it is a mechanically produced print. Yet, the photogravure has evolved interwoven within the history of photography.

In the early 19th century, engravings and etchings were used to illustrate books and journals. These generally required an artist to manually create the image, which was etched or carved into a printing plate. The French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) discovered that Bitumen of Judea (a kind of asphalt) would harden when exposed to light, and used this mixture to create the first image credited to be created by light in 1825. Niépce went on to partner with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), who would use the technology after Niépce’s death to create the first photographs. These silver-wrapped copper plates came to be known as daguerreotypes. The images were beautifully detailed, but were one of a kind. Copying them proved difficult. Hippolyte Fizeau (1819-1896) came up with a method to use daguerreotypes to etch a silver plate, but it was impractical and expensive.

The announcement that the British gentleman inventor William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) had discovered how to make paper prints directly using light and then use the negative/positive process to make copies superseded Fizeau’s efforts. When Fox Talbot discovered that his salt prints were given to fading, he went on to patent two etching processes to be used with his calotype negatives: one that used gelatin and chemicals that would harden when exposed to light, and the other involved adding a mesh screen so that large areas of the etching could still hold ink. These could be considered the first photogravures. In 1879, the Czech painter Karl Klíč (1841-1926) refined Talbot’s method using a gelatin coated carbon paper. It is the same general method that is used today.

View the technique used to create a photogravure:

Throughout history, photographers have embraced photogravures, not just as a way of making multiple copies of a photographic image, but for the beauty and tonality of the gravure itself. Writer and photographer Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936)endeavored to define photography as fine art and embraced the photogravure process for its ability to present an image with soft and naturalistic focus.

Famed photographer Alfred Stieglist (1864-1946) worked at the Photochrome Engraving Company in New York prior to opening his galleries and used photogravures exclusively for their lush tonality in his publications Camera Notes (1897-1903) and Camera Work (1903-1917). The process offers the most sophisticated photomechanical means to reproduce large editions while still retaining the warm blacks and subtle shades of gray. It thrived into the 1930s, but World War II brought an end to its popularity due to costs and availability. As the spirit of hands-on experimentation returned to photography in the 1960s, Jon Goodman (b. 1953) is credited with its revival, and is lauded for creating sumptuous portfolios of the works of famed photographers Paul Strand(1890-1976) and Edward Steichen (1879-1973.

The differentiation of mechanical prints and photographs made by light is not as definitive today as it was even a few decades ago. Currently, most images are created digitally and printed on ink jet printers (if printed at all). This technically makes them a mechanical print as well. The photogravure, however, offers a continuously toned richness that an inkjet print cannot equal.

If you haven’t seen the Reframed exhibition at FMoPA, it is on view through December 2020. Pay special attention to the borders of Alshaibi’s prints. Viewing them is a singular experience.

Robin O’Dell, Curator of Collections