Inspired by advances in lithography and engraving, inventors at the beginning of the 19th century were obsessed with capturing real-life images using light-sensitive materials. Photogravure was one of the earliest experiments in transferring photographic images onto paper, but at first it proved more difficult and costly to produce these precursors to the photograph than it was to develop images on metal (daguerreotypes, tintypes) or glass (ambrotypes). In particular, it took a while to figure out how to save an image on a medium so it could be printed more than once.
Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce made the first photogravure in 1826, employing a method borne out of intaglio printing to reproduce an engraving of Cardinal D'Amboise. The key to his breakthrough was the light-sensitive substance Bitumen of Judea (asphaltum). The same year, he created the first camera image of a view from his window using a similar technique. Three years later, Niépce was joined in his research by Louis Daguerre, who continued to pursue the concept of photography after Niépce's death in 1833. Daguerre introduced his photographic process, known as daguerreotype, in 1839. These were one-of-a-kind, mirror-quality still images captured on copper plated with silver.
Almost simultaneously, in 1840, an Englishman named William Henry Fox Talbot figured out how to create reproducible images on coated paper. His invention was patented a year late...
As it turned out, though, photogravure would not prove the easiest or even the most effective means of transferring images onto paper. In 1850, for example, Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard had invented albumen paper, which owed its glossy surface to a coating of egg whites. Because the photographic image was actually on this glossy surface rather than the paper fiber itself, it became much more clear. Four years later, French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri debuted the carte de visite, a photograph that could be mass-produced from a negative before being mounted on a card. In the 1870s, CDVs, as they are also known, were replaced by larger cabinet cards.
Still, artists and inventors weren't ready to give up on the photogravure printing process. Viennese painter Karl Klíc improved on Talbot's method in 1879, patenting a technique that employed an aquatint grain to create deeper shadows and a wider tonal scale. The photos made from this method, which transfers an image from a negative-etched copper plate to carbon-pigment paper coated in gelatin, are known as Talbot-Klíc dust-grain gravures.
At first, Klíc sold exclusive rights to this technique, which produced high-quality images, to major printers like Adolphe Braun and Co. in France, T. & R. Annan and Sons in Scotland, and F. Bruckmann Verlag in Germany. But by the late 1880s, his secret had been published and was widely adopted. Then, in 1884, George Eastman introduced his photographic breakthrough, flexible negative film, which created the photographs that dominated the 20th century, before the photography world went digital.
Around the same time, physician and photographer Peter Henry Emerson—a distant relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson—championed the idea of Naturalistic Photography, which asserted that soft and impressionistic photographs were more "truthful" than those with sharper images. Thus, Emerson preferred gravures to other forms of photography. His ideas gave birth to Pictorialism, wherein artists explored the expressionistic possibilities of the photographic medium, using soft-focus and pinhole lenses, as well as creative printing methods.
Photogravure was the favored printing technique of Pictorialists, and Emerson's gravures, created as book illustrations between 1887 and 1895, are considered some of the first examples of art photography. Pictorialists established clubs and artist salons all over Europe, including the Royal Photographic Society of England, the Linked Ring Brotherhood, and the Photo-Club of Paris.
In America, the Society for Amateur Photographers merged with New York Camera Club in 1897, and photographer Alfred Stieglitz took the opportunity to create a publication called Camera Notes to spread the word about art photography. Inspired by the Art Nouveau-era Vienna Secessionists, Stieglitz established a club called the Photo-Secession in 1902, to emphasize the break from tradition. Then in 1903, he quit his position as Camera Notes editor and started an independent magazine called Camera Work, which published some of the most esteemed gravures to this day, including the work of Edward Steichen.
Up-and-coming photographer Paul Strand's gravures appeared in the final issues of Camera Work in 1916 and 1917 on denser paper stock than before. Even though his Camera Work images were abstractions, Strand's work tended to be brutally realistic and objective, inspiring the Straight Photography movement, which dismissed dust-grain photogravure.
Naturally publishers relied on the clearer and cheaper process of rotogravure and offset lithography to produce their magazines. Strand himself, however, didn't abandon photogravure; he employed it to create stark images of war-torn Mexico in 1940. Photogravure all but disappeared after World War II, but in the early 1970s, artist Jon Goodman revived interest in this long-lost method, inspiring other contemporary artists, too.
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