Engraved light

The lush detail and checkered past of photogravure

click to enlarge SILK DEGREES: Robert Mapplethorpes Irises (Photogravure, 1987) - Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Image courtesy of Graphicstudio/USF
Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation,
Image courtesy of Graphicstudio/USF
SILK DEGREES: Robert Mapplethorpes Irises (Photogravure, 1987)

In 1966, Deli Sacilotto was a young printmaker in New York City when a client brought him a project different from anything he'd ever seen before.

The copper plates were similar to those used in etching — a process Sacilotto was intimately familiar with — but had photographic images, rather than hand-tooled drawings, incised into their surfaces. The images were photographs of Native Americans taken by Edward S. Curtis, an American photographer, during an extensive project documenting Native American life in the early 1900s that won him both fame and controversy.

Sacilotto knew what to do with the finished plates — he coated them with ink and ran them through a press onto dampened sheets of paper, like etchings — but he didn't know how to make new ones. As lush, detailed prints, like photographs kissed with smoky ink, emerged from the press, Sacilotto decided that he would have to learn. So he headed to the New York Public Library and began to research the history of a process called photogravure.

The rest, as they say, is history. After the Curtis project and much experimentation, Sacilotto went on to suggest photogravure — and a related process called direct gravure — to the contemporary artists he was working with on other forms of printmaking, including Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine. Later, as director of research at USF's Graphicstudio, he would collaborate with Robert Mapplethorpe, Ed Ruscha, Chuck Close and others. In an exhibit devoted exclusively to the art of photogravure, the results of some of those collaborations are on display now at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.

The exhibit traces a timeline from photogravure's birth as one of the first processes that enabled a lasting, mass-produced photographic image through a heyday of popularity in fine art photography from the 1900s to the 1930s, a subsequent fall from favor, and — finally — a revival by contemporary artists and printmakers like Sacilotto in the 1960s and '70s.

Supplemental early examples, drawn from the collection of Clearwater collector Dr. Robert Drapkin, illustrate the first, mid-19th-century uses of photoglyph, a photogravure predecessor that foreshadowed the process's ability to capture minute detail; in one tiny image, Paris' Tuileries Palace is rendered down to individual paving bricks and the chiseled folds of fabric on statues. Fifty years later, full-fledged photogravure had emerged with its ability to combine hard detail with soft, atmospheric light; a memorable glacier scene by Curtis captures the semi-translucence of ice blocks in luminous blue ink exactly suited to its subject.

In warm sepia, the Curtis images of Native Americans that Sacilotto printed strike a sentimental tone both affecting and maudlin. First printed in the early 1900s, the vastly popular series of pictures featured more than 2,000 photogravures published in 20 volumes with a forward by Teddy Roosevelt. But the images spawned controversy because Curtis frequently posed and manipulated his Native American subjects, covering their modern clothing with "traditional garb" like skins and blankets in images made to look spontaneous.

After a brief heyday into the 1930s, photogravure fell out of favor. It became synonymous with pictorialism, a painterly, romantic style of photography, said Noel Smith, Graphicstudio's curator of education and Latin American and Caribbean art, who selected the exhibit with Sacilotto. As pictorialism fell by the wayside, overtaken by modernism, which set greater store on documentary and abstraction, so did photogravure.

Decades later, contemporary artists were again attracted to the possibility of using the process to print photographic images with colored ink and paper. In a suite of photogravures printed by Sacilotto, Robert Rauschenberg chose red ink and pink paper to showcase a sampling of images he shot in ("Red") China. In a trio of black-and-white images at the other end of the gallery, he turns his lens on America.

Sacilotto also began to use the photogravure process to create prints from original drawings and paintings on mylar (a plastic-y, transparent paper) instead of photographs. This process, called direct gravure, also turned out to be a hit with artists. An image he printed with Nancy Graves in New York writhes with a colorful, tattoo-like mass of snakes and fish in vibrant colors.

During his tenure at Graphicstudio, which lasted from 1984 to 1989 and 1997 to 2006, when he retired earlier this year, Sacilotto got a chance to employ his master printing skills in photogravure with a host of visiting luminaries. With them — and with the aid of other Graphicstudio printers — he stretched photogravure to new limits.

A 2005 self-portrait by Chuck Close stands 4-feet tall — one of the largest photo-based images Graphicstudio has printed yet — and squeezes every last drop of detail out of an original Polaroid photograph. The larger-than-life close-up renders visible tiny features of Close's face, from individual hairs sprouting from his chin to faded spots on his forehead, creating a portrait resonant with both vulnerability and strength.

For a series of colorful images by Ed Ruscha, Sacilotto developed a special registration system to enable printing in four colors. Because photogravure uses dampened paper that stretches out on each run through the press, figuring out how to line up all four different-colored impressions must have been a real bitch. Sacilotto used pins to reposition the plate and the paper precisely for each run. The resulting images resemble old postcards, super-saturated in a send-up of commercial printing colors, and are flawlessly aligned.

In contrast, Robert Mapplethorpe's floral compositions milk intoxicating sensuality out of smoky blacks and whites. Warmed with a touch of yellow, the black ink is printed on white chine collé, a super-thin sheet of silk that lends the image's surface a subtle sheen. (The same technique was used in the Rauschenberg images.) Look closely for a glimpse of its delicate texture.

Now that Sacilotto has retired, he'll continue to consult at Graphicstudio — next up, a photogravure project with James Turrell, an artist known for manipulating land and light, who will be the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim in a few years — and work on a long-standing project:

What else? A new book on photogravure.