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?