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April 07, 2023

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

Alvin Langdon Coburn, "Brooklyn Bridge"

Alvin Langdon Coburn
Brooklyn Bridge, c. 1910
image: 19.9 x 14.7 cm (7 13/16 x 5 13/16 in.)
sheet: 21.2 x 15.3 cm (8 3/8 x 6 in.)
National Gallery of Art Washington, Robert B. Menschel and the Vital Projects Fund

Etched by Light: Photogravures from the Collection, 1840–1940
National Gallery of Art, Washington, October 15, 2023–February 4, 2024

Discover an intriguing chapter in the history of photography, as innovative practitioners searched for and perfected a method to produce identical photographic prints in ink. The process, which came to be called photogravure, 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 perfected a way to etch a photographic image into a copperplate and print it in ink. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, photographers such as James Craig Annan and Peter Henry Emerson utilized this process to demonstrate the artistic nature of photography while somewhat later photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, and Laure Albin-Guillot used the technique to create large, bold pictures that they disseminated widely. Including 46 photogravures and 5 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.

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.

The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

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