Rare art form combines disciplines

By Ivan Muzychka

The process is relatively old and rare, and less than a dozen or so people in Canada practise the art form. Fortunately for Memorial University, the Department of Visual Arts at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook has two of them as faculty members: Marlene MacCallum and David Morrish.

Over the last two years, Mr. Morrish and Ms. MacCallum have been researching the technical aspects -- and the artistic possibilities -- of photogravure, a process which combines the precision of photography with the beauty of print-making.

The photogravure process involves using a photographic negative to make a printing plate which can, in turn, be manipulated to emphasize, or de-emphasize elements of the image.

"We start from photographic negatives, and then work through a series of photographic processes," Ms. MacCallum explained. "We end up with an image that has been etched into a copper plate -- and at that point we ink it and print it as we would any kind of etching or intaglio print."

Mr. Morrish and Ms. MacCallum come to the process with complementary talents: he as a photographer, she as a printmaker. Since the process involves both arts, the two find it enjoyable and fruitful to work together. "We are both working towards this process from opposite directions, from a printmaking point of view and from a photography point of view," Mr. Morrish explained. "Because this process is so wonderfully in the middle, it was logical for us to end up working together..."

Photogravure, though a rare art, attracted both artists because of its unique way of rendering images.

"There is this combination of the two media that is the most fascinating part of the process," Mr. Morrish said. "This is because of its faithful rendition of photographic tones and detail, and its highly responsive plate technology and printing process."

Photogravure starts with a photograph, but involves a wide range of creative possibilities along the way: choosing a subject; taking a picture; developing film and producing high quality photographs; creating positives; scratching and etching the positives or negatives; creating new plates; and, finally, choosing the manner in which the image will be printed.

Ms. MacCallum says that although photogravure is labor-intensive, the results are worth it.

"Because it's a very refined process what you end up with is an image with a very high resolution in terms of detail and tonal gradation," she said. "It's a very detailed image, and it's capable of translating very, very subtle information. But because you are using ink on paper, the image is also very intense."

Mr. Morrish has used the process in his explorations of time and decay. "Lately my work has begun to focus more and more on zoological specimens -- especially bones and mummified remains," he noted. "The images deal with mortality and temporality and show how objects that begin to decay still have a certain stability at a certain point."

The process has allowed Ms. MacCallum to explore the aesthetic possibilities of one of the essential elements of photography -- light. "Thematically, I work solely with interior images. I think the main content of it is light," she explained. "The things I work with are quite ordinary and quite commonplace, but when you place them into certain situations with a certain kind of light there is this transformation that happens and they become more abstracted, yet still recognizable."

The initial stages of their research were funded by a Principal's Research Grant. Thanks to funding from the Office of the Vice-President (Research), and the Canada/Newfoundland Co-operation Agreement on Cultural Industries, the two artists recently co-ordinated an advanced level photogravure workshop that featured Jon Goodman of Massachusetts, one of the master photogravure printers in the world.

Their work has also taken the artists abroad. Mr. Morrish and Ms. MacCallum were recently in Ireland, where they visited the University of Ulster to demonstrate their knowledge of photogravure. In addition to giving them an opportunity to broaden the awareness of photogravure, the trip also gave them the opportunity to represent Canada as visiting artists. Major funding for their trip came from the British Council and the University of Ulster.

Their efforts will probably increase awareness of photogravure. Still, the two feel that working practically alone in this area has provided some advantages. "We learn for ourselves rather than being taught," Ms. MacCallum said. "It feels very much like our own language. The opportunities it has presented in terms of changing imagery and ways of thinking about making art have been exciting."