Centre for Fine Print Research University of the West of England Centre for Fine Print Research

The Etching Revival and the Photogravure: A Graphic Aesthetic for Photography

Author: Hammond, Anne
Name of conference: Impact 6 International Multi-Disciplinary Printmaking Conference
Place: Bristol
Date: 17-19.09.2009
Paper Presented by: Dr Anne Hammond
URL Links: http://www.impact.uwe.ac.uk/papersandpanels.html

This paper demonstrates the influence of the Etching Revival in Britain on fine art photography at the turn of the Century by focusing upon two photographers: Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) and James Craig Annan (1864-1946), who made photogravure (or photo-etching) their chosen art form. Already masters of the platinum photo-chemical print at the turn of the Century, they worked directly from photographic negative to embrace an ink-on-paper aesthetic, combining the perfect gradation of continuous-tone photography with the express means of photo-etching.

By a close comparative study of the interrelations between various processes in photography and other graphic arts, unique aesthetic and technical properties of the different processes can be discriminated from shared qualities, affecting form and meaning in both photo-chemical prints and photogravures. For instance, in the history of engraving, the mezzotint had supplied a tonal element; in etching, aquatint translated the effect of watercolour wash; and lithotint provided the kind of tonal gradation presaged in 1839 by Sir John Herschel's coinage of 'photography' by analogy with lithography.

In the 1860s, graphic arts critics such as P.G. Hamerton and the etcher-critic Sir Francis Seymour Haden held that the essential quality of the etching was that of the hand drawn (but chemically etched) line which expressed the artist's autographic and artistic intention, an attitude which clearly separated artist-etchers from the position of reproductive engravers. However, one of the artist-etcher James McNeill Whistler's most important contributions to the Etching Revival was his ability to create tone, not just through fineness and density of lines but also by various means of expressive inking and wiping of the printing plate. His cultural and aesthetic impact on J.C. Annan's etcher friends D.Y. Cameron and William Strang, and A.L. Coburn's etcher mentor Frank Brangwyn, created a productive relationship between the etching and the pictorial photograph through its etched equivalent, the photogravure.

Whistler's influence was also felt in the basis of the New English Art Club, with which the photographer-critic P.H. Emerson was closely involved in the 1880s. Emerson's seminal work Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889) provided historical and critical foundation for a whole generation of photographers. In his writings, he advocated the photogravure as the perfect translation in ink of the aesthetic qualities of the platinum print, eventually learning to make gravures himself. Emerson's admiration of Whistler's etched work is especially apparent in his book of photo-etchings Marsh Leaves (1895), in which he experimented with both the high-contrast, sparse etching style of Whistler and Hayden, and the full tonal range inherent in photography.

James Craig Annan had been the first British photographer to learn the process of photogravure, travelling to Vienna in 1883 with his father Thomas Annan to recieve instruction directly from its inventor, Karl Klic. Annan and his friend D.Y. Cameron travelled together and worked side by side; Annan's portrait of Strang as 'The Etcher' and Strang's laudatory reviews of Annan's photographs suggest mutal admiration; and Annan was also a friend of Muirhead Bone, a member of the New English Art Club. All three of Annan's etcher-friends are considered to be leaders of the Scottish Etching Revival, with Cameron and Strang expressing their commitment to the fine art status of the origional etching by resigning in 1903 from the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers in protest at the Society's inclusion of reproductive prints in their exhibtions. In this context, Annan, a son of a family whose primary business was the craftsmanly reproduction of works of art, maintained a Whistlerian insistence on the origionality of the fine art photogravure.

Alvin Langdon Coburn was already an accomplished photographer when in 1902-03 he studied in Ipswich, Massachusetts, with the Arts and Crafts printmaker and educator Arthur Wesley Dow. In 1904, he studied wood-engraving in London with the painter-etcher Frank Brangwyn, where he experienced the etching process first hand and was influenced by Brangwyn's social commitment to the industrial worker in the urban landscape. In 1906, he attended London County School of Photo-Engraving at Bolt Court, bought his own etching press, and became a photographer-gravurist.

Printing his original hand-pulled gravures in his books London (1909) and New York (1910), Coburn was effectively refuting the contention of etcher-critic Joseph Pennell (student and biographer of Whistler), in his 1897 article 'Is Photography Among the Fine Arts?', that images produced by the mechanism of the camera could not approach the status of art.

The challenge for the artist-photogravurist was to re-introduce, into the technical constraints of photography and gravure, elements of personal artistic control. The exercise of control in photography was defined by Coburn and Annan as a process of selection, a fine sense of judgement in pictoral emphasis. Although unable to redispose elements of the composistion, the photogravurist could, by control of focus in the photograph and contrast of inking in the photogravure, prioritise the most important elements and suppress or exclude less important ones. This idea is directly related to Haden and Hamerton's concept of selection and omission in etching, the artistic emphasis through structure and tone, and refined economy of expression.

The slide presentation showed how Annan's and Coburn's photogravures finely balanced the ink-expression of etching with the continuous tone of the photograph, placing 'pictorialist' photography of the 1890s and early Twentieth Century back in its graphic arts context.