The Photogravures

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Photogravure of Pima Matron in Edward Curtis, The North American Indian, 1907. 

The invention of the photogravure in the late nineteenth century radically transformed the reproduction of prints for both artistic and commercial purposes. Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), often credited as the inventor of photography, patented his original photogravure process in 1852 and an improved technique in 1858. Although Talbot’s developments formed the foundation of the photogravure process, it was Karl Klíč’s technique, invented in 1879, that enabled the commercial and artistic success of the photogravure, or photo-engraving, the technique used to reproduce J. P. Mayall’s photographs in Artists at Home.

The photogravure process uses pure copper plates, and the first step in the process is to delicately clean and polish the plate. Aquatint particles are then applied to the plate and adhered by heat. Once the plate is prepared, the photogravurist readies the image by making a positive and creating a gelatin resist. After the image is transferred to the copper plate, the plate is etched to create wells of ink of varying depths. These wells hold different amounts of ink to create variations in shade. The plate is then washed, inked using gravure inks, and printed on an etching press. Re-inking the plate and repeating the process yields additional impressions.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, publishers chose the photogravure process for reproducing images in books, magazines, and prints. A particularly well-known example is Edward C. Curtis’s North American Indian (1907), a 20-volume series containing 1,500 photogravures. The process was also used for the London illustrated weeklies John Bull (1820-92), Everybody’s (1913-59), and Picture Post (1938-57), for high-class sales catalogues, and for specialized art and photography journals.  Artists favored the photogravure process over other printmaking techniques because it allowed for creativity in the form of modifications to the plate. The photogravure therefore increased the availability of high-quality art reproductions to the public, even though it was expensive and time-consuming and thus limited: not all publishers could afford the costly copper plates, ammonium dichromate, and high-quality papers needed for this technique, and creating the resist and etching the plate was a labor-intensive process. 

In a note at the beginning of Artists at Home, the publisher, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, recommends the photogravure process for its ability to produce pictures “which are not merely absolute facsimiles of the originals, but which bring out admirably the middle tints so often found wanting in the photograph from which they are taken, and which have hitherto been a characteristic only of high-class steel engravings.” [1] The process combines the best traits of photography and intaglio, affording the photogravurist the opportunity to either create a reproduction that is absolutely faithful to the original image or to rework, adjust, alter, and present the image in a new way.

The association between photogravures and fine art may have helped to confirm the status of photography as an art form, a highly contested topic throughout the Victorian period. Reproductions in this technique were highly regarded by the public, as evidenced by the Art Amateur’s advice to the novice consumer: “With a few hundred dollars to spend on pictures for the wall of a room . . . [it] would be best for him to buy engravings or photogravures.” [2] But even photogravures had their critics: “Anyone who claims that a photograph or photogravure gives him any artistic pleasure, is his own dupe.” [3]

Jenifer Norwalk

1. J. P. Mayall and Frederic George Stephens, Artists at Home (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1884), n.p.

2. “Correspondence,” Art Amateur (September 1881):68, quoted in Rachel Mustalish, “The Development of Photomechanical Printing Process in the Late Nineteenth Century," in Topics in Photographic Preservation 7 (1997): 84. 

3. Hans Singer and William Strang, Etching, Engraving and the Other Methods of Printings Pictures (London, 1897): 187, quoted in Mustalish, 84.  


Further Reading: 

McLean, Ruari. "The Reproduction of Prints." Print Quarterly 4, no. 1 (1987): 40-45.

Morrish, David. Copper Plate Photogravure: Demystifying the Process. Amsterdam: Focal Press, 2003.

Mustalish, Rachel A. “The Development of Photomechanical Printing Process in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Topics in Photographic Preservation 7 (1997): 73-87. 

Katzman, Mark. “The Art of the Photogravure.” Accessed October 6, 2016.

Stulik, Duscan C., and Art Kaplan. “Photogravure.” Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2013. Accessed October 6, 2016.



The Photogravures