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November 29th, 2008

Charles Nègre: A Portfolio of 13 Photogravures

Negre_Jammes_01.jpgWhen is a restrike not a restrike?  

Andrè Jammes is recognized as one of this century’s greatest photography collectors. An expert in early French photography, the photographically illustrated book and the history of photomechanical reproduction, Jammes was an early advocate of the importance and beauty of photogravure. This portfolio, printed in 1982, is a testament to Jammes’ belief that the photogravure process holds a relevant place in the history of the medium.

“Charles Nègre (1820-1880) was one of the most influential photographers of the XIXth century.  His approach to architecture and his special taste for genre photography made him famous.  He played a leading part in the field of photomechanical process in which he made important discoveries.  As early as 1855 he brought the hand-pulled photogravure process to an extraordinary degree of perfection.  His work, thus translated into permanent photographic etchings, is classical in the history of photography. So much so that at the Universal Exhibition of 1855, some critics considered that he had reached such perfection that “the important question of engraving through the action of light was finally resolved.”

The present portfolio demonstrated his successive trials, from the modest “Maçon accroupi” published in La Lumière in 1854, to the large-scale plates of Chartes cathedral, which are his masterpieces.

The fragile silver salts of normal photography are transcribed in the photogravure process with printing ink.  This process adds to an appreciated esthetic improvement the guarantee of absolute permanence.  These values have always been recognized as famous photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand adopted photogravure with enthusiasm in Camera Notes and Camera Work.  It ceased being used after the Second World War because of its cost.  It is only recently that a few workshops have revived this old and marvelous process.


At Saint-Prex, in Switzerland, there is an exceptional experimental atelier where numerous innovative techniques are being essayed, including the revival of photographic etching.  It was therefore only natural to have the old steel plates of Charles Nègre printed in the mot favorable condition at this atelier.

These thirteen plates are hand-pulled photogravures, printed from the original steel plates made 125 years ago.  The printing methods are absolutely similar to those employed in the XIXth century.  When reprinting old photographic negatives, there are difficult problems of chemistry and personal interpretation. Here the approach was quite different:  The only goal was to obtain by traditional methods, the best proofs possible.  A special ink adapted to each plate had to be devised, a very powerful and precise press used, and a hand-made paper produced, covered with “chine collé” according to the methods so appreciated by the Romantics. Each proof thus has the velvet of chine and the strength of vellum.

This portfolio is a resurrection undertaken in a spirit of scrupulous honesty, presenting images faithful to the old proofs, which now are almost impossible to locate at any price.  Curators and collectors will appreciate the absolute permanence of these proofs, which risk no damage in being exposed to the full light.

The thirteen plates are presented in a box with three compartments (86×67 cm.), containing the two large-size plates, the 11 smaller ones, and descriptive and historical notes.  The edition is limited to 110 copies, 100 of which are for sale.  An original etching by Charles Nègre, engraved from the famous self-portrait drawing of Ingres, is included in the text.”

André Jammes, 1982

View Portfolio

For information please contact Hans P. Kraus, Jr.

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