Creative types like to experiment, find new ways of doing things. Photographers too. Photogravure came about because of this need to “push the envelope.” It is the result of combining negative photography with etching printmaking, all on the quest to produce a better photographic print. The technique’s invention came during the early days of photography, when William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the first masters of photography, started experimenting with it in the 1850s.
“The Art of Photogravure,” at Paul Paletti Gallery, includes several great images produced by important 20th-century photographers. As with most early 20th-century photography, it centers around one man, Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was instrumental in changing the public’s view about photography, from its 19th-century technical beginning to an art form. He was at the center of the photography boom with Gallery 291 in New York City (where he showed photography alongside paintings, drawings and sculpture — something that had not been done before), and was also included in the Photo-Secession group and Camera Work magazine. The photographs reproduced in the magazine had to be of the highest quality, so the “photogravure printing process” was employed.
Stieglitz considered Edward Steichen the brightest star of the Photo-Secession group. Steichen lived a long and creative life (he died in his 90s), dominating photography in both the artistic and commercial realms. Stieglitz and Steichen met in 1900, when Stieglitz bought some of Steichen’s work (that’s high praise, indeed). Stieglitz then promoted Steichen’s photography in Camera Work in 1902, 1906 and 1913. He was a World War I and II photographer, then worked for Vogue and Vanity Fair as chief photographer. Beginning in 1947, he became director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
His 1904, “Moonrise Over Pond,” featuring trees reflected in water lit by the moon, became one of his masterpieces. On Feb. 14, 2006, one of only three known original images of this photograph sold for almost $3 million, the highest price a photograph has been sold for in auction. A photogravure image of “Moonrise Over Pond” is included in this exhibition. Another work, “Grand Prix at Longchamp, After the Races, Paris” from 1907, shows him equally adept at genre scenes, highlighting not the race but the wealthy, beautifully dressed spectators. Later he steers close to abstraction, such as in his 1921 “Three Pears and an Apple.”
Paul Strand is another famous name from early 20th-century photography. Stieglitz featured him in Camera Work in 1916 and 1917. As a result of studying with documentary photographer Lewis Hine, Strand’s work is direct; the form of the object is the main focus. His “Gateway, Hidalgo, Mexico” from 1933 emphasizes the architecture of the arched gate framed under a cloudy sky. Unfortunately, his later years were troubled; he moved France after being investigated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The lure of the photogravure continues to dominate photographers interested in producing stark, sharp imagery. Karl Blossfeldt’s use of the photogravure is well suited for his anatomical enlargements of flowers and plants. Magnified many times, the 1928 images of “Aquilegia chrysantha” and “Acer rufinerve” will have you marveling at the crispness of the details.
As a lover of Gothic architecture, I was pleased to see Bruce Barnbaum’s series of cathedral interiors. The city of Winchester, near London, houses one of England’s most impressive medieval churches. Begun in 1079, it is partly Anglo-Norman and partly Gothic, but it includes the massive, soaring arches and columns. Barnbaum’s “North Transept, Winchester Cathedral” captures the qualities that make late-medieval architecture so breathtakingly beautiful. (Fast fact: Author Jane Austen is buried at the Winchester Cathedral.)
The lesser-known town of Wells, near Bristol and Bath, also has a high-quality medieval church. In fact, it qualifies as England’s smallest cathedral city. “Central Arch, Wells Cathedral” shows the great pointed archway, with its companion circles of stone above it.
Because of the use of the photogravure printing technique, the photographs in this exhibition are highly detailed, sharp and full of great contrast. It seems the marriage of printmaking and photography has produced many a good offspring.
BY JO ANNE TRIPLETT