The history of photogravure reaches back to the first photographic experiments of Nicéphore Niépce in 1816 in France, as he attempted to capture an image in such a way that it could be converted into a printable form. Although rather primitive, his first photomechanical process, called Gravure Héliographique, was developed ten years before the public announcement of the Daguerreotype process in 1839.
After it became known in 1839 that dichromates in combination with certain kinds of glues become light sensitive, Henry Fox-Talbot, in 1850, discovered the light-sensitivity of the gelatin-dichromate mixture. He named the process Photoglyphic Engraving and patented it in 1852 and 1858. Talbot spread his gelatin-dichromate mixture directly onto a copper plate and etched it through the gelatin layer after exposure, first using platinum chloride, later ferric chloride. In doing this, he observed that the rate of penetration through the partially tanned gelatin could be precisely controlled by means of changing the ferric chloride concentration.
After the carbon printing technique became known in the 1860’s, whereby a negative placed over a pigment paper was transferred to another paper backing for development, Karel Klic in Vienna, towards the end of the 1870’s, combined carbon printing with Fox-Talbot’s photoglyphic procedure to produce the ultimate photogravure process. A rapid spread of its use can be seen between 1884 and 1886, when details of the process became publicly known. Although used primarily as a reproduction technique, the process attracted the attention of many photographers and printmakers who manipulated their plates to give special artistic effects to their prints.
In 1895, Klic adapted his process for printing gravures from a cylinder on a rotary press. In place of a dustgrain ground, a screen was copied in, and excess ink on the cylinder was wiped off mechanically, instead of wiping off by hand. By 1920, Klic’s process now called rotogravure, had become widespread and dustgrain photogravure began to disappear slowly as too expensive a technique. The process was lost for over forty years until a handful of artists started to revive it in the late 1970’s.
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