Current Issue / DU Alumni

DU alumna is a photogravure pioneer

For the past 16 years, Barbara Sanders (BFA ’72) has been pioneering an art form known as “photogravure.” Like pioneers in any field, her path has often been challenging, confusing and, yes, messy.

Barbara Sanders' photogravure prints -- including Strawberry Past (pictured) -- capture historic Colorado buildings before they disappear forever.

“I like icky inks,” she says with a laugh.

Photogravure is actually a centuries-old printmaking technique that was all but lost after World War II. Though Sanders had been introduced to other printmaking forms during her studies at the University of Denver, she learned about photogravure in 1993 during a class she took at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Her life since has been a quest to perfect her own process and art.

The photogravure process is quite intricate. Fundamentally, it involves printing photographs using etched metallic plates. But that’s a deceptively simple description. While each artist’s process is slightly different, today Sanders’ list of materials includes: digital images, an ink-jet printer, overhead transparency paper, carbon tissue (a hard-to-find thin paper with a gelatinous film), UV light, a mezzotint screen (which she purchased from a man in Sweden), mirror-finished copper, ferric chloride and ink.

During the process, a positive image is exposed on light-sensitive carbon tissue, which adheres to the copper plate so that when etched, varying depths of holes based on the dark and light aspects of the image are created. Sanders then spreads ink onto the surface of the plate, wiping off any excess. The plate is used to transfer the inky image to cotton rag paper.

Why go through this involved, unpredictable process to print a photo?

“One of the joys of gravure is the clarity,” Sanders says. “There is a brilliant contrast of white and dark but with this great continuous tone. If you get up close to a gravure, the paper is not shiny. The blacks are black, and everything else is a continuation of that black.

“It was explained to me that when you create a gravure, the little drops of ink are absorbed into the paper, so there is a third dimension,” Sanders says. “With a photo on traditional silver paper, you’re looking at all one plane. Photogravure is three-dimensional.”

“From the beginning, I recognized Barbara’s dedication to her projects along with her willingness to spend the time and energy to get the results she wanted,” recalls Dodie Warren, who introduced Sanders to the technique at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. “In class, we had some stunning successes and some disasters, and she seemed to like the challenges.”

Sanders’ patience and persistence are paying off. One of her prints, titled View, is on tour with the Texas Photographic Society’s “Alternative Processes” exhibition. That print, like many that Sanders works on today, is of a historic ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where she lives.

“I’ve always tried to immerse myself in the places I live,” says Sanders. “As I travel around the West and the Southwest, I am drawn to crumbling, ancient and modern stone and wood structures. I am distressed that the history is falling away from memory. I try to capture fragments, which will mean something when the buildings are gone and the stories forgotten.”

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