The original hand-pulled or grained gravure process (also called photogravure) is one of the most demanding photographic mediums. Having been made famous by the gravures used in Alfred Steiglitz’s magazine, Camera Work as well as by artists such as Alvin Langdon Colburn, Paul Strand, and P.H. Emerson, gravure prints are created using etched copper plates that are printed by hand, usually on an etching press. The process uses the intaglio principle whereby the depth of the impression on the printing plate determines the lightness or darkness of the image, the darker parts having been etched much deeper into the metal than the highlights and so holding more of the ink that is then transferred to the paper. The preparation of the plate and its subsequent printing are extremely exacting procedures but the results are amazing with rich blacks and very delicate highlights. Contemporary practitioners have developed alternatives to the the traditional etching process, such as using plastic polymer plates that can also be inked and printed on a flat bed press.
Sheet fed Gravure
Before the widespread use of photo offset printing in the early 1940s, many photographic and fine art books and periodicals were printed using the sheet fed gravure process. Like the hand-pulled process (see above), sheet fed gravure works on intaglio principle whereby the physical depth of the impressions on the printing plate controls the lightness or darkness of the image. Sheet fed gravure, however, employs a flexible plate that can be bent around the cylinder of a mechanized printing press. Unlike offset printing, sheet fed gravure has virtually no visible screen pattern. The rotary press was also capable of laying down a heavy load of ink, resulting in extremely rich blacks. Additionally, because of the continuously variable depth of the etched wells that carried the ink, very subtle gradations in the highlight areas could be achieved. In the mid-1930s before offset printing became widespread, a number of photographic publications, including the Leica and U.S. Camera annuals, were printed in sheet fed gravure. These annuals were printed by The Beck Engraving Company of Philadelphia, a leader in the field. The famous French magazine, Arts et Metiers, was also gravure printed as were the botanical images of Karl Blossfeltd and the work of the famous pictorialist, Adolf Fassbender.