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Etched by Light: Photogravures from the Collection, 1840–1940

Past Exhibition

October 15, 2023 – February 4, 2024
West Building, Ground Floor - Gallery 22

Discover an intriguing chapter in the history of photography.

In the 19th and 20th centuries innovative practitioners searched for and perfected a method to produce identical photographic prints in ink. The process came to be called photogravure. These yielded some of the most beautiful photographs ever made—featuring delicate highlights, lush blacks, a remarkably rich tonal range, and a velvety matte surface. Etched by Light: Photogravures from the Collection, 1840–1940 tells the story of the first 100 years of this process.

Artists and scientists working across Europe from the 1840s through the 1870s were dismayed to discover that identical silver-based photographic prints were not only difficult to make but also faded quickly. Building on one another’s discoveries, innovators such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Hippolyte Fizeau, and Charles Nègre advanced a method for etching a photographic image into a copperplate and printing it in ink. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, photographers such as James Craig Annan, Peter Henry Emerson, and Alfred Stieglitz utilized this process to demonstrate the artistic nature of photography. Somewhat later photographers such as Man Ray, and Laure Albin Guillot used the technique to create large, bold pictures that they disseminated widely.

See 40 photogravures and 4 bound volumes illustrated with photogravures, many never before exhibited. Etched by Light shows how these works, through their proliferation, have helped shape our collective visual experience.

The exhibition coincides with the symposium Photomechanical Prints: History, Technology, Aesthetics, and Use, organized by the FAIC Collaborative Workshops in Photograph Conservation and hosted by the photograph conservation department of the National Gallery from October 31 to November 2, 2023.

Selected Works

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Organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington

The exhibition is curated by Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department, with Andrea Coffman, collection manager, department of photographs, National Gallery of Art. 

Admission is always free and passes are not required

Banner detail: Clarence H. White, Edge of the Woods, Evening, 1900, photogravure, Robert B. Menschel and the Vital Projects Fund, 2010.76.13