Photogravure (etching)

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Photographic Materials Conservation Catalog
Photographic Processes
Date: Initiated March 2012
Contributor: Saori Kawasumi

Photogravure (Etching)

Photogravure is arguably the finest photomechanical process, and it was used extensively for illustrations in books and newspaper as well as artistic prints. This process has a variety in the way they are executed, and a print may be referred to as "gravure," "hand gravure," "aquatint gravure," "grain gravure," "flat-plate gravure," "heliogravure," "rotogravure," and "roto" among others. (Benson, Crawford)

Historical Facts
Invented: 1879, Karel Klič (1841-1926)
Important Development Dates:

  • 1879 Klič exhibited photogravures at the Vienna Photographic Society.
  • 1883 A British firm purchased license to produce photogravure from Klič and introduced the process to England.
  • 1890 Klič introduced the use of cross-line screen instead of aquatint and the use of copper cylinder in place of copper sheet. This process is distinguished from photogravure by the name "rotogravure".
  • 1892 Details of rotogravure process was published.

Historic Practitioners: Peter Henry Emerson, Edward Curtis, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand
Photogravure was favored by pictorialists in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Camera Work, published by Alfred Stieglitz between 1903 and 1917, is known as one of the best examples of a publication with high-quality photogravure illustrations.

Identification Characteristics
Image layer: Intaglio printing ink on paper
Color: Ordinarily black, but varies depending on the color of the ink used
Support: Paper
Analysis: Aquatint-like grain pattern or screen pattern via visual examination under moderate magnification (~15x)

Basic Process Overview (Contemporary Process)
A copper plate is dusted with resin powder, then the plate is heated to melt the resin, creating aquatint grain pattern. A thin tissue is coated with gelatin, then sensitized with dichromate. When this tissue is exposed to light in contact with a positive image, gelatin in the area that receives more light (highlights) becomes more insoluble to water than the areas with less light exposure. Gelatin layer is transferred to the aquatint-coated copper plate by pressing the gelatin side of the tissue against the plate. The plate is, then washed with warm water to remove soluble gelatin, leaving a thicker layer in highlights and thiner layer in shadows. Upon immersion of the copper plate in ferric chloride solution, the area with less gelatin is etched more quickly, thus deeply than the area with thicker layer. The rest is identical to any intaglio printing process. The plate is inked, depositing more ink in the deeply etched areas and less in shallowly etched areas, thus creating tonal range, then printed on paper as positive image.

Housing and Storage Considerations

  • Photogravures should be stored in good quality paper-board folders, to protect from light, dust, and handling. Materials passing the Photographic Activity Test (P.A.T.) are suitable for use.
  • An ideal temperature and humidity are 68 degrees F (20 degrees C) +/- 2 degree drift and 50% +/-5% variation over 24 hours.
  • Housing and storage guidelines suitable for intaglio prints are applicable to photogravures.

Emergency Recovery Tips

  • Handling wet paper can cause damage such as nicks, abrasions, and tearing.
  • Mold can develop on or within the papers.
  • Find step-by-step salvage technique for moldy paper in Preservation Leaflet 3.8: Emergency Salvage of Moldy Books and Paper[1]by Northeast Document Conservation Center (

Helpful Treatment Techniques, Things to Know, and CAUTIONS!

  • Treatment techniques used for for intaglio prints are suitable for photogravures.

Electronic Media Resources: WEBLINKS, AUDIO, DIGITAL

Printed Resources: BOOKS, ARTICLES

  • Baldwin, Gordon. 1991. Looking at photographs: a guide to technical terms. Malibu, Calif: J. Paul Getty Museum in association with British Museum Press.
  • Benson, Richard. 2008. The printed picture. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
  • Crawford, William. 1979. The keepers of light: a history & working guide to early photographic processes. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Morgan & Morgan.
  • Reilly, James M. 1986. Care and identification of 19th-century photographic prints. Rochester, NY: Eastman Kodak Co.

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