A few days ago I was at an exhibition at Fotografisk Center in Copenhagen. The exhibition is a show of photogravure crafted by Niels Borch Jensen, and the evening I was there, there were talks by both Niels Borch Jensen and Clay Ketter. It was very, very interesting, both because of the photographs in the exhibition but also because of the photograveure as technique.
Gravure is a form of print engraving. The photograph is etched into a hard plate, usually through a raster. This means that very dark areas have rather large and deep holes, grey areas have smaller less deep holes, and very light areas have the tiniest holes. To print you fill the holes with paint and press the paper against the plate in a manual high pressure press. Usually a matt paint is used on matt paper, but you still get very dark blacks as the dark areas get a lot of paint because of the deep holes.
The prints all have a very painterly but also three dimensional feeling. As I understand it, it is partly because of the varying thickness of the paint, but also because of the very slight fussiness of the print because of way the paper is pressed against the plate. Multicolor print can only be made by making a plate for each color separation and then press each plate with different color onto the same paper – a very difficult manual process.
The process was originally developed in the mid 19th century and was used by Alfred Stiglitz and Paul Strand. It was abandon in the 1920’s until it was redeveloped in the late 20th century. It has in this modern incarnation been made known largely by Niels Borch Jensen. It was really great to hear him tell about the technique and about working with artist to find the right expression for just their art. This is not about simple reproduction, it is about using a special and difficult craft to express new art.
The exhibition was with quite a few artist, all printed at the Niels Borch Jensen workshop. They was quit different and most of them was exquisite. Let me just write about a few of those I found most interesting (the pictures are grabbed from the home page of the Niels Borch Jensen gallery where all the photographs can be seen). Just be aware that the photographs of the prints (of the photographs) do not show the great physicality of the print.
This is by Thomas Demand and it is one in a series of four, showing the same building from four sides. I thought immediately that it was very düseldorpfer like, even though I don't really know what is generally thought to define the Düseldorpfer school. I gave me great satisfaction to later find out that Thomas Demand actually studied in Düseldorpf. This print is as object-like as it can be. Thomas Demand photographed an actual building in Japan, he then build a paper model after his photos, which he then photographed. These photographs was then printed with 4-color photogravure. Whew. They are beautiful and strange. They are lifelike and totally artificial looking. They are cool and interesting.
Carsten Höller had a large series of birds, all amazing in large format photogravure print. Niels Borch Jensen told about how the photogravuere technique results in a different thickness of paint. Black paint is never really totally black, it always is based on some different tone (cool blue, warm blue, yellow, etc, etc). When the paint is thick it looks very black but when it is very thin the base tone can bee seen clearly. This means that a single-color photogravure print often (depending on the specific paint used) has a duotone effect. This is of cause common in many kinds of photographic print (and is also common with digital editing). But Niels Borch Jensen can make two-color photogravure where each color has a clear duotone effect. The bird prints are two-color prints, where each color is near black but with different base tone color. It is very, very beautiful and fascinating. I thought so also before I knew how they were made - but it was great learning about the craft used to make this art.
The last photograph I will show here is by Carsten Holler who also was at the exhibition and told both about his art and about working with photogravure. His road pictures was my favorites. Perhaps I was influenced by him telling about it - knowing about something obviously makes it more interesting. But I do think that those road pictures was beautiful in an very obvious way. Everybody knows immediately what the motive is, even though we have never seen it quite like this in real life. The photogravure gave it a physical soft roughness that was perfect.
The prints above all have a kind of objective distance to their motive. But other prints at the exhibition was very different with a more dream-like engagement. If you get the chance, you should see for your self.