Photogravure, a prominent medium in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, combines the techniques of film photography with those of intaglio printmaking. The method traditionally involves the transfer of a film positive to a gelatin tissue, which is applied to a copper plate, etched by bathing in acid, and inked before being run through a press – resulting in images of tonal richness and subtlety.
“Refocus: Contemporary Photogravure,” currently at SUNY Cortland’s Dowd Gallery, features pieces by four artists working in the old-fashioned technique: Lynne Allen, Barbara Madsen, Lothar Osterburg, and Judy Pfaff. The show was guest curated by SUNY art professor Charles Heasley.
Photography conceived as a form of artisanal printmaking unites these artists despite their distinctions. Allen excepted, the artists often combine various print techniques. Most of the work is in monochrome (often black-and-white) and dates from the past fifteen years.
Allen and Madsen are showing work that memorializes found objects in a manner akin to portraiture.
Allen’s Native American heritage informs the choice of antiquities portrayed in sumptuous photographs from her Nature Morte series. These are unique here for their crispness. Three-dimensional seeming objects appear silhouetted against thick black. In images like Moccasins, Rider, and Spurs, objects stand-in for body parts—and for the body itself. Her interest in memorialization is made explicit in Mourning Bag, in which an ornate frame encloses a delicate dress-like bag on which has been sewn “no thought is born in me that does not have death carved in it.”
Eccentric found objects and insects form the basis for Madsen work here: seen by the artist as metaphors for cultural difference. Their oddness is enhanced by her deliberately scuffed-up textures. Samples of work from two series have been hung together: machine parts feature in Forgotten, fake eyeballs in Eyewitness.
In two large prints from her Red Yellow Black series, Madsen blows up specimen insects, revealing their strange surfaces and structures. They appear against fields of red done in aquatint—in RYB 3 crackled in texture, in RYB 2 featuring Rothko-like brushiness. (Both prints have been mounted to canvas.)
New York City artist Lothar Osterburg specializes in photogravure. For his distinctively compelling work, he constructs elaborate models—often on architectural or urban themes—often playing off of art history. These he photographs through a macro lens or magnifying glass, resulting in prints bathed in a thick, hazy atmosphere reminiscent of the Pictorialist photographers of a century ago.
The famous Carceri (prisons) series of 18th century etcher and urbanist Giovanni Battista Piranesi is a source for several prints here, which conflate the modern city with that artist’s imaginary underground settings. Piranesi (State 1) and Piranesi (State 2) allude to his two published versions. In the second, Osterburg has gone back into his original plate with scraping, drypoint, and aquatint—overlaying sketchy drawing over the photographic original. In Vaulted Trailer Park, a cathedral-like setting is crowded with the titular vehicles and with toothpick scaffolding.
(Osterburg also dabbles in video; a wonderful stop-motion animation related to these prints can be seen on the Internet.)
Osterberg typically works from imagination and memory rather than direct observation. Bridge over Brooklyn was based on a memory of a photograph, Meudon, by André Kertész. It conflates the distant high arched bridgeway of that Parisian image with a plausible reconstruction of a classic Brooklyn streetscape. Zeppelins Docking at Grand Central imagines an alternate reality where the New York City train station was repurposed as an airport of sorts.
Best known for her exuberant room-filling installations, Judy Pfaff also creates intriguing works on paper, often combining organic and architectural motifs in a semi-abstract manner. Here she is showing four panoramic prints showing collage-like juxtapositions of shots, each on a single theme. Her metallic-painted wood frames have been deliberately beat-up and are integral to the pieces.
Three of these feature repeated circular motifs, evocative of spinning. Featuring upward gazing interior views of ornate Turkish buildings, Bosphorus and Konya enrapture with their dizzying conflations of arches, domes, and chandeliers. Tinted an acidic green, Sweet Lilly finds an equivalent in nature.
In an age of digital photography, it’s easy to lose sight of the medium’s roots in the laborious (often collaborative) practices of the workshop and studio. Far from being mere practitioners of nostalgia, the artists here point to a robust future for traditional techniques.
Visitors to the Dowd can also see “Wilderness Bisect,” a display of (digital) photographs by Ithaca sculptor Rob Licht documenting a recent installation in the woods of Raquette Lake, NY.
“Refocus: Contemporary Photogravure” is on display at SUNY Cortland’s Dowd Gallery from March 18 through April 24. The Dowd is currently in a temporary location at 9 Main Street, Cortland and is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.