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March 9th, 2010

Brassai’s Paris de Nuit: Photogravure or not?

Brassai, Open Gutter From "Paris by Night" 1933

Brassai, Open Gutter from "Paris by Night" 1933

Brassai’s Paris de Nuit is highlighted in Andrew Roth’s 101 Best Photography Books, “The photogravures are so rich that the sooty blacks still look like they’ll rub off the page… Brassai became a master of drawing luminosity from the darkness.”

Was Roth correct in referring to the images in this book as photogravures?  Just what does the term ‘photogravure’ really mean? Truth of the matter is that while the images in Paris de Nuit are by strict definition photogravures, they are ‘sheet-fed’ photogravures which cannot really be compared in quality or craftsmanship to ‘hand-pulled’ photogravures.

Sheet fed photogravures were printed by relatively high volume presses and are typically found on relatively low-quality paper. Production efficiency and automation trumping aesthetics, the ink was thinned with solvents in order to be able to be applied mechanically.  The ink was also applied thinly to aid in quick drying.  Further compromising quality, a grid like screen was used to generate the gradation of tone rather the more organic and time-consuming aquatint dust used in the hand-pulled photogravure process.  So while sheet fed photogravures did reproduce images in ink with an intaglio plate, that’s where the comparison ends.

The photogravures highlighted on this site are all handmade.  They are old school. The tone defining grain is organic rather than a screen. The ink is thick and rubbed deep into the plate by hand.  The plate is run through the press slowly, one sheet at a time, to insure the complete transfer of the pockets of ink deep into the oftentimes hand handmade tissue or paper.

It is no wonder photogravure is so misunderstood (translate: undervalued.) If the same word is used throughout the photography collecting community to describe both something that is machine made AND something that is hand-made, who wouldn’t be confused?

30 Responses to “Brassai’s Paris de Nuit: Photogravure or not?”

  1. […] Brassai’s Paris de Nuit: Photogravure or not? | Photogravure […]

  2. Jonathan Clark says:

    Hi–You’re mistaken about the distinction between sheetfed and hand gravure. The screen has nothing at all to do with “gradation of tone”, it’s not a halftone screen but a fine grid of clear lines (or sometimes random pattern) giving the doctor blade a surface to run across–the same function as an aquatint, only sturdier and more controlled. Many hand workers have used screens instead of aquatint. The cylinders or plates used for that book were made with carbon tissue and etched exactly like flat plates. (Not any longer of course.)

  3. Eric Thomson says:

    It is important to make these distinctions but the devil is certainly in the details. Mr. Katzman didn’t say it was a halftone screen. Still, as with a halftone screen, it is photo-mechanically produced. The difference in the result, between a halftone process and say a rotogravure, is that the gelatin enables depth of bite in addition to the size of the ink-pocket, enabling mechanical gravure’s great delicacy. How we feel about that, versus a more “organic” dust-grain procedure, is the question. The visible difference is often only appreciable in the lightest areas and only then with a loupe. Still, there will be differences between “handmade” and “machine-made” prints. Not always, and they will perhaps only be valuable ones when coming from the hands of the most expert practitioners, but certainly the market should be informed enough to reward those differences.

    I certainly agree with Mr. Katzman’s main point; terminology should absolutely distinguish between works entirely by the hand of the artist and works executed with assistance, mechanical or otherwise. There is a difference. Why else would we value a lifetime impression of a Durer engraving over a later restrike or a museum’s photomechanical gravure reproduction?

  4. Jose de Leon says:

    Ofcoarse there will be a difference in both handmade and machine assisted techniques in terms of authenticity. I too agree that such distinctions should be made clear to merit such warrant. Still, the photographs in this book are exquisite and in comparison to todays technology, photographic techniques from the 1930’s and before are all old school in my opinion.

  5. google says:

    This is so true. Every time I think about Thanksgiving, I’m frustrated because I haven’t killed myself yet!Thanks for the reminder! I’ll be drunk soon.

  6. Robert says:

    Berlin Photographic Company they take 480 photogravure
    From original painting in few diffrents gallery’s and museums like Gallery in Vienna, London , Berlin , Prado Madrid, Hermitage St. Petersburg all off them have press stamps and are than by Photogravure process and few of preferred subjects are reproduced in Facsimilegravure .
    I’m wonder how valuable they are and if is possible to bay .
    Thank you,


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  17. Jussara says:

    Je n en disconviens pas : Esquimau , non plus que Inuit , ne fernieat mieux l affaire. Fassassinuite laisserait la poste9rite9 pantoise et le bec dans l eau.c0 regarder de plus pre8s, le re9bus n a pas besoin d un deuxie8me son [s], qui vient doubler celui d as ; le son [ki] suffirait. Dans ces conditions, pourquoi pas la 22e lettre de l alphabet grec : khi ? Cela dit, elle graphiquement de9cevante : ce n est qu un X.

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