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The Beginnings of Photogravure in Nineteenth-Century France
Alexandre Ken, writing about photography in 1864, took note of the formation of the Société des Aquafortistes, an organization which had as its aim the preservation and promotion of artistic etching and engraving. He spoke of the alarm felt by etchers and engravers over the increasing encroachment of photography into their realm of artistic production and reproduction, but he noted that “Ce n’est pas d’ailleurs la photographie proprement dite qui menace de ruine les artistes dévoués à l’eau-forte et au burin; c’est l’héliographie [gravure héliographique]… qui sera bientôt à leurs vieux procédés ce que le chemin de fer est à l’antique diligence.”1
Twenty-five years had passed since the first public announcement of photography. On an almost daily basis during that first quarter-century of photography, artists, chemists, and entrepreneurs tried, one after another, to improve upon whatever subtle refinement or radical rethinking of the medium had been announced the day before. Photography was then very much a hand-crafted medium—a cuisine, where each practitioner had his own recipes and found that a dash of this or a grain of that or a change in the temperature of one solution or another by so many degrees for so many minutes yielded superior results. Some photographers kept the details of their processes secret, and others took out patents or published their processes for profit, but many—particularly those engaged in photography as a gentlemanly pursuit rather than as a profession—freely shared their small discoveries with one another. Particularly in the 1850s, with the founding of photographic societies (principally the Société héliographique in 1851 and the Société française de photographie in 1854) and of journals devoted to the advancement of photography (La Lumière, Cosmos, and the Bulletin of the S.F.P.), one can trace in detail the evolution of photographic practice. The same was true with photogravure during those early years. To enumerate each of the photographers who tackled the problem and to detail their individual solutions would be too long a story;2 instead, the pages that follow sketch the picture in broader strokes, outlining a few of the major players and their varying approaches to photogravure and suggesting some of the technical and critical issues that shaped the search for a practical photogravure process.
At its origin, photography was intimately linked with printmaking. In 1829, ten years before Louis Daguerre would announce the invention of photography, he formed a partnership with Nicéphore Niépce, who, in turn, had been experimenting with light-sensitive materials since the 1810s. By the time they joined forces to perfect the nascent medium, Niépce had already obtained passable results. His earliest photographic experiments—using sensitized paper—proved fruitless because of his inability to “fix” the camera image; the paper continued to darken after being removed from the camera. His first real success in photography grew instead from a familiarity with the materials and processes of etching and lithography (the latter introduced in France only in the first decade of the century.) In a letter of June 2, 1816, to his brother Claude, Niépce wrote that he was experimenting with metal printing plates and stones rather than paper as a support, and he identified the two principal advantages of photogravure over silver-based photographs before either had actually been invented: “ce genre de gravure serait bien supérieur à l’autre, toute réflexion faite, à raison de la facilité qu’il donnerait de multiplier les épreuves, et de les avoir inaltérables.”3
His earliest surviving image made by photographic means—a photomechanical reproduction, in fact, not a camera image—has only recently come to light. In July or August 1825, Niépce succeeded in reproducing an etching of a horse and his leader [trans: un cheval avec son conducteur] by varnishing the original print to make it transparent and placing it on a copper etching plate coated with bitumen of Judea. Niépce had found that this substance, an asphaltum used by etchers as an acid-resistant coating for their copper plates, was photosensitive; normally soluble in oil of lavender, the bitumen of Judea hardened when exposed to light. Thus, after placing the varnished print on the coated plate and exposing it to light for several hours, he was able to make the image appear gradually by setting the plate in a solution that dissolved the bitumen wherever it had been protected from the hardening action of the light. After being washed and dried, the plate was etched in acetic or nitric acid, then cleaned and printed like any other intaglio plate. The bite was delicate, however, and only a single proof, sent to Niépce’s cousin, has survived.4
By the following year, Niepce had even greater success, having switched to pewter plates, which he found more sensitive to the acid. With help from the engraver Augustin-François Lemaître, who reinforced his initial etching, he was able to make numerous photogravure proofs reproducing Isaac Briot’s seventeenth-century engraving of Georges d’Amboise, Cardinal and Archbishop of Reims.5 Niépce’s first successful camera image, also made in 1826, showed a view out the window of his house near Chalons and relied on the same materials and techniques borrowed from etching—bitumen of Judea on a pewter plate. The exposure, however, was made in a camera obscura rather than by contact-printing a pre-existing image, and the plate itself was seen as the finished product, not as a matrix for producing prints on paper.
Despite Niépce’s early successes on a theoretical, and even demonstrable level, his process was far from perfect—the results still primitive and the exposures impractically long: the view from his window required an exposure of eight hours. Louis Daguerre’s account of the development of the daguerreotype—and his insistence that the process bear his name alone—were not wholly self-serving; the magically precise images which he first displayed in January 1839 owed at least as much to his continued research and experimentation after Niépce’s death in 1833 as to Niépce’s visionary experiments.
Daguerre’s dazzling mirrors of reality were images formed in the camera obscura on sheets of silver-plated copper (again, like the copper plates used by engravers and etchers), sensitized with fumes of iodine and developed in mercury vapors. In a news account that appeared in the Gazette de France on January 6, 1839—the day before Daguerre’s photographs were to be revealed to the Académie—Hippolyte Gaucheraud described the remarkable detail of Daguerre’s plates and predicted many of the uses to which photography would eventually be put: “Travelers, you will soon be able, perhaps, at the cost of some hundreds of francs, to acquire the apparatus invented by M. Daguerre, and you will be able to bring back to France the most beautiful monuments, the most beautiful scenes of the whole world. You will see how far from the truth of the Daguerotype [sic] are your pencils and brushes.” Gaucheraud turned to print media in trying to describe the look of a daguerreotype: “If I wanted to find something resembling the effects rendered by the new process, I would say that they take after copperplate engravings or mezzotints—much more the latter,”6 which is to say that the scene is rendered in tone rather than line—there is no pattern of burin lines or etched cross-hatching.
Although he displayed daguerreotypes in January 1839, Daguerre revealed the details of his process only in August of that year, in exchange for a government annuity. The new medium was embraced with wild enthusiasm, so much so that by December 1839 the caricaturist Théodore Maurisset could parody the phenomenon as “Daguerréotypomanie” in a lithograph showing a world overrun by daguerreotypists—a man with a camera photographs from a hot air balloon, cameras are loaded on ships for export, and people line up to willingly submit to the tortures of a daguerreotype portrait sitting (figure 1).
Among the most enthusiastic supporters of the new medium was Noel-Marie-Paymal Lerebours. As if fulfilling Gaucheraud’s prediction, he made and collected from other photographers more than 1200 daguerreotypes showing scenes from around the world. The problem with the daguerreotypes, however, was that each was unique—a one-of-a-kind image. Between 1840 and 1843 Lerebours published a series of 114 prints—mainly aquatints but also a few lithographs—based on his collection of daguerreotypes. The editor’s introduction to Lerebours’s Excursions Daguerriennes, vues et monuments les plus remarquables du globe read, in part, “Gràce à la précision soudaine du Daguerréotype, les lieux ne seront plus reproduits d’après un dessin toujours plus ou moins modifié par le goût et l’imagination du peintre.” Although manually produced, Lerebours’s series might loosely be considered among the earliest commercially successful photogravure projects, for the aim of the artists was to replicate in intaglio as closely as possible the perspective, detail, and tones of the photographic models. The basic composition and outlines of each daguerreotype were traced on translucent paper and transferred to etching plates for interpretation by skilled etchers. Figures—which went unrecorded by the long exposures of the daguerreotype plates—were often added, sometimes based on drawings made at the site, but often based on fancy. Without doubt, the varying styles of different etchers are visible from one plate of the Excursions to the next, but a few have a play of light, a chiaroscuro effect, and an astonishing truthfulness of perspective and detail that, even today, read photographically (figure 2).
Daguerre’s contemporaries logically posed the question whether there was a way to transform the daguerreotype plate directly into an intaglio plate for printing, without the intervention or interpretation of the artist’s hand. At the right side of Maurisset’s 1839 lithograph “Daguerréotypomanie" can be seen signs proclaiming “Epreuves Daguerriennes sur papier” and “Système du Docteur Donné” Donné is not a fictional character. He was, in fact, the first to make intaglio prints from daguerreotype plates—to print true photogravures of camera images—and he showed examples of his prints to the Academy of Sciences on September 3, 1839, less than a month after the details of Daguerre’s process had been made public.
To understand how Donné’s process worked, one must first realize that the “black” parts of a daguerreotype are in fact simply the highly polished, mirror-like surface of silver, which read as black when reflecting something dark, and the “white” portions of the image are an amalgam of mercury on the silver plate. Donné found that a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid bit more rapidly into the silver (“black”) areas of the image than into the mercury amalgam (“white”) areas of the image. Etched in this manner, the plate could be printed as any other intaglio plate. Donné’s process worked in theory and, to a certain degree, in practice, but the problems were significant: first of all, the layer of mercury was so infinitesimally thin that it began to break down fairly quickly, allowing only the shallowest bite to be effected by the acid; and second, silver being relatively malleable, the surface of Donné’s plates could withstand only a small number of passages through the intaglio press—within forty or fifty prints the image was all but obliterated.7
Although Donné’s photogravure process was far from perfect, it was enough to signal the potential of the new medium. Just to the left of Dr. Donné in Maurisset’s print can be seen a grisly scene—a forest of gallows and hanged bodies. Who are these people? The sign nearby reads “Potences à louer pour MM. les graveurs”.
By far the most successful process for transforming daguerreotypes into intaglio plates was that developed by Hippolyte-Louis Fizeau, aided in his experiments by the engraver and aquatinter Johann Hürlimann. In 1841 the 22-year-old Fizeau patented a more successful but significantly more complex process than Donné’s. Lerebours’ Excursions Daguerriennes included two true photogravures produced by the Fizeau process, one showing the Hôtel de Ville de Paris, the other a sculptural relief panel on Notre Dame.
In the accompanying text for the first of these, M. Challamel described Fizeau’s advances in the most glowing terms:
Les merveilleux résultats photographiques récemment obtenus prouvent que les procédés daguerriens sont arrivés à une grande perfection. Une moitié du problème, la plus importante et la plus difficile, restait à résudre, savoir: d’obtenir un nombre d’exemplaires, imprimés sur papier, de l’image même fixée sur la placque. De nombreux essais, demeurés infructueux, avaient fait désespérer du succès, et M. Daguerre lui-même l’avait jugé impossible.
L’art nouveau semblait donc réduit à des limites restreintes, quand M. Fizeau est venu lui ouvrir une carrière immense en apportant au monde savant et artistique cette importante solution. Après de longues expériences et de constants efforts, il a réussi à transformer les épreuves daguerriennes en véritables plances gravées par la nature.
As “photographic” as many of the hand-drawn plates in the Excursions Daguerriennes seem, it is still striking to turn from the many pages of photographically-based aquatints to Fizeau’s photogravures. In some visceral way, one feels in the presence of a different type of representation. To Challamel’s eyes, Fizeau’s photogravure of the bas-relief at Notre Dame (figure 3) “rend parfaitement tous les détails et jusqu’aux moindres traces de vétusté imprimées par les siècles sur la pierre du vieux monument.”8
Fizeau outlined his process at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences on February 13, 1843, and distributed photogravure prints of the church of Saint-Sulpice taken from the window of his nearby apartment at rue du Cherche-Midi, 17. In brief, the process he described was as follows:
1. The daguerreotype plate was lightly etched with a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids. (Essentially, this was as far as Donné got.) To remove insoluble silver chloride from the silver portion of the image, the plate was then treated with ammonia. These steps of etching and cleaning could be repeated if necessary.
2. Boiled linseed oil was rubbed onto the plate, filling the recessed portions, and cleaned off of the surface (just as one would ink an intaglio plate for printing.)
3. The plate was placed in a bath of gold chloride solution and attached to the cathode pole of a battery, with the anode pole in the liquid solution. The electrical charge resulted in a thin layer of gold being deposited on the daguerreotype. (This technology of electroplating, or “galvanoplastie,” was as new as photography itself.) The gold plating, however, adhered only to the high (clean) portions of the plate, and not to the recessed (oily) portions.
4. The plate was removed, cleaned with caustic potash, and again submerged in a nitric acid bath. The gold—impervious to the acid—protected the high portions of the plate, while the acid bit still deeper the recessed portions.
5. The plate was then electroplated with copper to make it stronger, less susceptible to force of the intaglio press.9
Fizeau’s earliest examples, made in 1841 and 1842, were lacking in half-tones and detail, a fault that he overcame in his later prints by graining the plate with rosin before a final etching, as in Man and Boy, distributed at the close of another lecture at the Academy in 1844. The aquatint graining is visible under magnification (figure 4).
Although Fizeau described his prints as being made “without engraving or retouching by an artist,” traces of roulette work are visible along the edges of Man and Boy. As successful as Fizeau’s prints were, they were not altogether satisfying. On the one hand, despite their precision, they remained far from the magical surface and seemingly infinite detail of the daguerreotype plate. On the other hand, they lacked the beauty of mark and the sculptural suggestion of classic engraving, where the swell and curve of each engraved line simultaneously possess two-dimensional beauty and describe three-dimensional form; by the nineteenth century, the type of engraving practiced so fluidly and by earlier masters such as Goltzius had been adopted with near mechanical perfection by reproductive engravers. The spots and pits that describe form in Fizeau’s print seemed arbitrary and inelegant alongside the work of engravers.
Fizeau’s process ultimately proved a dead end. Though clearly capable of fine results, it was too complex to be readily practicable, and few prints beyond the inventor’s demonstration pieces and his plates for the Excursions Daguerriennes were made by Fizeau or by others using his process.
The Rise of Paper Photography
What ultimately put an end to the experiments for converting the daguerreotype plate into an intaglio printing plate, however, was the demise of the daguerreotype itself as paper print photography began to flourish in France. The problem spurring experimentation in photogravure in the 1840s was not “How can we print a photographic image with printer’s ink?” but rather “How can we make multiple copies of a photographic image?” which, in the form of a daguerreotype, was by definition one-of-a-kind.
Although Talbot’s initial “photogenic drawing” process was revealed nearly simultaneously with Daguerre’s in 1839, it was a decade before the principles and processes of negative/positive photography on paper were adopted in France. The reasons were two-fold. First, in 1839 and 1840 Talbot’s process was simply not perfected to the degree that Daguerre’s was, particularly for camera images. For better or worse, Talbot’s images—even those made by his improved calotype process of the 1840s—lacked the astonishing clarity and seemingly infinite detail of the daguerreotype. (“For better or worse” because many commentators in both Talbot’s time and our own have viewed the slightly fibrous quality of his images and their tendency to mass shadows in chiaroscuro effect as especially lyrical and appealing.) Second, and probably more important, is the fact that Daguerre’s process, placed in the public domain in exchange for a government annuity, was free to all (except in England), while that of Talbot, who enjoyed no such subsidy, was patented and required a license for commercial exploitation. Only in the late 1840s had French artists and inventors tinkered enough with Talbot’s recipes to circumvent his patent restrictions, and it is at that point—particularly after 1850—that paper print photography gained favor in France.
The rise of paper photographs, then, seemed to render moot the problem of converting the daguerreotype into a printing plate, for from a single negative, scores—even hundreds—of virtually identical photographic prints could be produced, and their paper support made them more easily integrated into the realm of graphic arts. They could be pasted in albums, matted and framed like engravings, or tipped into printed books. Though lacking the perfect clarity of the daguerreotype, the salted paper print from a paper negative still gave a smoother gradation of tones and sharper detail than even the best of Fizeau’s prints.
Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard established a photographic printing house in Lille in 1851 and applied such economy to the production of prints that he rendered moot the economic advantages of illustrating books with photogravures rather than original photographic prints. He reduced the time required for printing his photographs by chemically developing them, and thereby made photographic printing commercially viable for book illustration. In operation from 1851 to 1855, his Imprimerie Photographique published more than two dozen photographically illustrated books and portfolios.10
Experimentation in photogravure did not stop, however. Instead, it grew out of a different need or desire than it had in the 1840s. Now, rather than searching for a means of producing multiple copies of a single photographic image, the aims of research were permanence and integration into the established artisanal and technological structures of the printing industry.11 Gaston Tissandier, summed it up thus: “It is true that by the process of photographic printing on paper one has at once a negative on glass which will produce any quantity of proofs; but how slow is the printing! what numerous obstacles there are in the way of this process, which requires sunlight and careful attention to minute detail unknown in the production of printing-press proofs! and besides, photography on paper is not durable; it fades with time, sometimes turns yellow, and often even becomes completely effaced.”12
The Jury of the Universal Exposition of 1855 noted with dismay the persistent problem of impermanence in photographic prints, reporting that “trop souvent… ces belles planches dont le prix s’élève quelquefois jusqu’à cent francs, s’altèrent peu à peu par l’effet de la lumière et finissent par disparaître.”13 Although such fading was due principally to negligence in printing and fixing the photographs, according to the report, the Jury recognized that science could not guarantee the indefinite stability of even the most thoroughly fixed positive prints. “Heureusement la récente découverte de M. Niépce de Saint-Victor, l’héliographie [gravure héliographique] en remplaçant les épreuves positives photographiques par des épreuves imprimées à l’encre à l’aide de la presse, donnera, tout le fait espérer, une solution satisfaisante à cette question si capitale pour l’avenir de la photographie. En garantissant l’indestuctibilité des épreuves , et en réduisant le prix aux frais du tirage ordinaire des gravures, M. Niépce de Saint-Victor complétera et couronnera l’oeuvre de Daguerre, de Nicéphore Niépce et de Talbot.”14
Niépce de Saint-Victor
Cousin of the pioneer of the medium, Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor, returned to the principles of Niépce’s Cardinal d’Amboise and, again like the elder Niépce, worked with the master printer Lemaître to perfect his process. Niépce de Saint-Victor’s two principal improvements were to make the bitumen of Judea more sensitive, and, after exposing the plate and dissolving the unhardened bitumen, dusting the plate with a layer of extremely fine rosin powder—i.e., adding an aquatint texture to hold the ink in large areas of tone.
Photogravures produced by his process were included in the 1853 volume Photographie zoologique ou représentation des animaux rares des collections du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle by Louis Rousseau and Achille Deveria (figure 5). The first fascicles of the volume were issued with salted paper prints by the Bisson frères tipped in, but subsequent fascicles took advantage of Niépce de Saint-Victor’s new technology; the volume is thus the first substantial publication to be illustrated with photogravures. Writing about the book’s photogravure plates in his summary of photography at the Universal Exposition of 1855, Ernest Lacan conceded that it was still necessary, in the majority of cases, to retouch the gravure plate with the burin, selectively etch certain parts, or use the burnisher on others, but nonetheless he declared that “Dès maintenant, il est prouvé que la gravure héliographique peut se prêter à toutes les applications de la photographie… Bientôt, nous en sommes convaincu, elle amènera une véritable révolution dans la librairie. Un jour viendra, en effet, où l’historien, le voyageur, le naturaliste, ne voudront plus confier l’illustration de leurs livres qu’aux graveurs héliographes.”15 More surprising than that, this most enthusiastic critic and publicist for photography declared that “Pour nous la photographie, si complète qu’elle soit dans ses résultats, n’est qu’un procédé transitoire, et c’est à la gravure héliographique ou à la photolithographie qu’appartient l’avenir.”16
Niépce de Saint-Victor’s was but one of many experimental photomechanical processes put forward in the early- and mid-1850s, and nearly as many terms for the new gravure and relief processes were proposed as there were processes themselves: “gravure héliographique,” “héliogravure,” “gravure héliotypographique,” “héliotypographie,” “paniconographie,” and, perhaps the most extreme case, “paniconophototypographie.”17
The Duc de Luynes Competition
Among the subscribers to Lerebours’s Excursions Daguerriennes was Honoré d’Albert, duc de Luynes, an enlightened patron of the arts, an archaeologist, and a painter and photographer himself. In response to the need for a simple and reliable means of producing inalterable photographic prints, the duc de Luynes established two awards in July 1856 to stimulate research.18 Announcing the competition, which was open to Frenchmen and foreigners alike, Victor Regnault, Président of the Société française de photographie, reiterated the imperfect state of knowledge regarding the stability of photographic prints: “Malheureusement, l’expérience de la première période photographique que nous venons de traverser est loin d’être rassurante à cet égard: beaucoup d’épreuves qui n’ont que quelques années d’existence sont aujourd’hui profondément altérées; quelques-unes se sont complétement effacées.”19
The smaller of the two prizes, 2000 francs, was to be awarded to the person judged to have made the most progress towards a process for permanent photographic positives. The larger prize of 8000 francs, was to be awarded in three years to the person judged by a special committee of the Société to have developed the best process for producing photographs using printer’s ink (whether photolithography, photogravure, or photo-relief printing.) In keeping with the founder’s desire that the prizes stimulate research, the Jury was to consider not only the beauty of the finished products, but also the originality of the invention and the prospects for the wide and easy application of the various processes presented.
The results were not what was hoped for, however. “Il était naturel de penser,” wrote Blanquart-Evrard, “d’après les progrès déjà réalisés, que les trois années ne s’écouleraient pas sans que le problème ne reçût une complète solution. La Société Française de photographie, constituée juge du concours, partageait les illusions du généreux fondateur; mais l’expérience, cette dure enseigneuse qui dissipe impitoyablement tous les mirages, a prouvé que le concours, au lieu de hâter la marche du progrès, l’avait, sinon paralysée, tout au moins considérablement ralentie.”20
Meeting in 1859 to consider the entries in the grand concours, as it was called, the Jury found no process to have fulfilled the intentions of the duc de Luynes. Of the many artists and inventors submitting their work for consideration, three were found particularly worthy of note: Charles Nègre, Paul Pretsch, and Alphonse Poitevin. In fact, each had tackled the problem before the announcement of the competition. The other processes submitted were eliminated from consideration as being insufficiently described, not serious, or relying too heavily on the existing processes of others.21
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