The Art of the Photogravure
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June 1st, 2007

Photogravures at The Met

CameraWork_36_15.jpgRecently I had an opportunity to study, first-hand, photogravures from the Stieglitz Collection archived at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The collection contains several examples of photogravures from the pictorialist and Photo-Secession era.  The highlights were a set of large-format plates of Stieglitz’s early New York images – all of which appeared in Camera Work, as well as an extensive array of James Craig Annan gravures.

While I was there I had the privilege of speaking with Malcolm Daniel, Curator of the Department of Photographs, about photogravure.  Daniel, an authority on Edouard Baldus  as well as the early history of photogravure in nineteenth-century France, agrees that some photogravures, when made under the direct supervision of the artist, can be considered original prints.  He cited the Stieglitz plates in Camera Work as examples.  When comparing Stieglitz’s large format photogravures to his original 4X5 contact prints, it is clear that Stieglitz tapped the potential of the photogravure process to bring his images to life.  What I didn’t realize before my visit, however, was how closely the smaller format plates in Camera Work matched the large plates Stieglitz made for himself.

I am left with no doubt that the Stieglitz gravures in Camera Work can and should be considered original vintage prints. On the other hand, as Daniel pointed out, this is not true for all Camera Work gravures. For example the Hill and Adamson plates, although faithful and beautiful, were made posthumous. In addition, Hill and Adamson made salt prints which have characteristics all their own.

On a side note, when visiting the study room in the Department of Photography at the Met guests are asked to read and sign a document that provides print-handling guidelines.  I thought it might be of interest so I have included it here…

Handling Guidelines for Photographs

– Use only Pencil to take notes
– Never touch the surface of a photograph with your hand, ruler, or any other object.
– Do not turn the photographs over; always keep them face up.  Handle matted or sleeved photographs one at a time, always using both hands.
– Do not remove any photograph from its original mat or protective sleeve.
– To remove interleaving tissue, open the matt completely and lift the tissue. Do not drag it across the photograph.  Replace it in the same careful manner.
– Stack the photographs carefully, one at a time; never slide them from one stack to another.
– To view photographs lay them flat or use an easel.
– Photographs are arranges in the boxes by matt size, progressing from largest at the bottom to the smallest at the top, with a divider of archival board between groups of different size.  There is also a sheet of archival board at the bottom and top of the stack and a sign-out sheet at the very top.

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