Lothar Osterburg

Interview with artist and Photogravure printmaker Lothar Osterburg. One of the most preeminent printmakers working with the Photogravure technique today, an interview conducted by Emanuel von Baeyer discussing his career, both as a printmaker and an independent artist.  

"When I moved in I was one of the best dressed people around, when I moved out, I was one of the worst dressed people, without having changed how I dress..."

Click here to view our online exhibition of Photogravures by Lothar Osterburg. 

I have seen you working in various places preparing plates for Photogravure as well as your wonderful combined space for living, working and displaying your work in your large red house in Ret Hook. What struck me is the precise timing, to the second, preparing the various stages of the plates. Something which I assume cannot be learned but must be practiced. Photogravure seems like a technical and mechanical undertaking but it also looks as though one needs a lot of “Fingerspitzengefühl” and creative intuition - what is your take on this as one of the most prominent printmakers in this field around the world? 

You are right, one needs a lot of “Fingerspitzengefühl” or finesse and instinct for Photogravure. However, no one is born with that. I have been doing this for more than 30 years and in the beginning I struggled just as any beginner would. What worked in my favour was my interest in both the complex process and its artistic potential. I started with lithography in art academy in Germany I where I fell in love with the complex Chemical process that was not always completely controllable, striving to understand and predict. Photogravure was just a bit more complex and I was instantly hooked. For years I struggled, failed and repeatedly re-did plates until they were perfect to get to where I am now. When you observed me, you saw the cumulation of close to 30 years of experience. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book “Outliers” about the 10,000-hour rule, which looking at statistics suggests that you only become a true master if you pursue a skill for at least 10,000 hours. At this point I exceeded that by far and feel very comfortable making Photogravure plates with a success rate that I could have only dreamt of 25 years ago. I have reached this place only through years of experience, not only figuring it out in my own studio, but also teaching workshops in studios I had never visited before, having to trouble shoot on the fly, improvising, and coming up with unlikely solutions because there was nothing left to lose.

All this experience has become a seventh sense, an internal rhythm that looks to an observer like a well-rehearsed dance. I have gotten to a point where I get excited when a new problem presents itself to me. Problem-solving is an integral part of Photogravure and printmaking in general. In those 30 years since I started a few changes such as the discontinuation of essential supplies have forced me to fundamentally alter how I work, of which the shift from analogue to digital was the most profound. Though each of these challenges offer new opportunities at the same time.

You are foremost an artist yourself, as well as a printmaker for others, how do you balance both activities in your daily life?  

Balancing all my activities is a never-ending struggle. I work not only as an artist and do collaborations with other artists but also teach in the art department of Bard College. When I get into my art studio I need an undisturbed stretch of time to develop a new body of work, so there are stretches when I don’t get to do any work for months. I usually find the time in intense spurts during semester breaks or make time under pressure to prepare for a show. 

While they all compete for my time, these activities influence each other in positive ways. The need to verbalize my ideas, technical processes and participate in critiques clarifies the purpose of what I am doing and inspires new directions. Working in tandem on my own work as well as on contract work allows me to experiment on my own work while being challenged in the contract work. In my own work I am the artist who can decide what is good and what is not what works artistically and what not while in contract work the plate has to just be perfect. What I discover when working on my work feeds into collaborative projects and the experience and solving challenges imposed by those projects improves my own work. 

How many of the artists you know and who use you as a Photogravure printmaker, can really appreciate the labour intensity of this technique rather than a simple reproduction of their images? And how often do the works supplied fit to this technique? 

Artists who I work with do appreciate Photogravure for its tactile quality, its deep, rich and wide tonal range and its archival quality. They choose it deliberately over inkjet or other reproductive processes. For quite a few artists I would not know the answer as I work for them through a publisher or another printer. I never get to communicate with most of them directly. Many, most likely the “big name artists”, do not realize or appreciate the labour that goes into making one. There are however a number of artists who took one of my workshops where they realized it was too difficult for them to learn or to become good enough within their time frame or patience. And then there are a few artists who want to be present to either help or at least observe the process when I make their plate. Those artists do end up having a deep appreciation of the process and are a pleasure to work with. 

I view Photogravure as a process with which to primarily create original work. Most projects I take on are a great match for Photogravure. Most are with photographers or artists using photography as part of their work, some with artists who use Photogravure initially to reproduce a drawing or painting, but then work back into the plate to take it elsewhere. A photogravure will never look the same as a gelatine silver or an inkjet print, though it is always a learning curve for the artist to embrace the look of their work as Photogravure. However, I do regularly get requests by artists who may not know exactly what they want or what photogravure can offer. Part of my job is to educate, advise and guide artists. I try to understand the artist’s ultimate goal they have for their print, to make suggestions or propose a direction they did not conceive of. It starts with decisions how to make the best plate for the project to suggesting papers, a colour, the use of chine collé, a surface roll or even cutting the plate into a shape or embossing. But if it looks like the project is not a good match, I do my best to dissuade them or get them to change course, even if it means losing the project and having them work with a screen printer.

Only a few artists are experimental and - for example - work back into the plate. The copper plate can be re-worked with any etching process, with the final result a perfect blend between the photographic and the hand drawn, unified by the same ink on paper.

Photogravure as a printmaking technique was highly influential in the distribution of images by the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Do you feel that Photogravure as a method still has the same impact today and is as comparably well-known in the world of printmaking? 

What makes photogravure so unique is that is it a truly continuous tone process. Blacks are etched deep into a copper plate with grey values to highlights progressively less so, transferring varying amounts of ink in the printing to create a wide range of values. It is in stark contrast to the ubiquitous halftone that is necessary to simulate grey values by changing the size of evenly spaced black dots. Latter is used in virtually all modern photographic printing methods.

Photogravure has been used for a wide range of purposes through its history. What was a revolutionary invention in the mid 1800’s to mechanically print photographs has become a rarefied high-end printing process printed from plates with viscous oil-based ink. Rotogravure, a mechanized, flatter looking commercial process using copper cylinders and solvent based inks, still has a commercial use in printing of magazines and packages. Most art reproductions today are printed in photolithography or CMYK colour offset printing, which not only replaced much of photogravure’s market, but also further enabled photographic imagery to become ever more ubiquitous.

What interests me personally most of the early days of photogravure are the photographers of the pictorialism. They were the first artists to use photogravure, gum - and platinum printing to create photographs that they considered to be original art, though still emulating the painting style of that period, whereas the pre-Raphaelites used photogravure as reproductions of other work in the lineage of engravings and later posters.

Printmaking, which includes Photogravure, has always been about faster cheaper and easier (but not always better) with the purpose of a wider, more affordable distribution. Once a process became commercially obsolete, artists preserved those techniques for their inherent beauty. Publications like Camera Work by Alfred Stieglitz that contained mostly photogravures to show the uncompromised beauty of photography would be prohibitively expensive to produce today. Contemporary artists use Photogravure primarily for its high-end quality to set it apart from digital prints, to produce rarefied limited editions, in part to justify the high production cost. Without that niche market the process would have died out by now. I love the Japanese system of the living national treasure, which not only preserves artefacts, but also the knowledge and skill by giving grants to masters of intangible cultural properties. 

Among print makers Photogravure is pretty well known but not always fully understood. Outside the Printmaking community Photogravure is much less known or confused with other photographic processes. Polymer photogravure makes it even more complicated as there is no real differentiation between copper plate and polymer photogravure in the commonly used terminology. 

The process I use is copperplate photogravure in the 19th century tradition of Fox Talbot and Karl Klič. A few printmakers have elevated polymer photogravure to an almost even level with the traditional process, though those plates could not be re-worked.

Aside from the skills you have as a Photogravure printmaker, you are an extraordinary artist in your right with a unique approach using Photogravure as a form of art - you are surely one of a kind. Can you tell me a little bit more about your practice and how you develop your images? 

The way I approach my work evolved over a period of time. At the Hochschule für bildende Künste Braunschweig I started out as a printmaker and experimental filmmaker focusing primarily on lithography. It was in the late 80s after moving to the US when I was working at Crown Point Press in San Francisco and had to learn Photogravure for a project with Christian Boltanski that I fell in love with Photogravure. This was finally a photographic process that had the textural quality that I always loved in printmaking and I was able to manipulate the plates afterwards. This coincided with a friend selling me a 4x5 camera with which I experimented photographing small-scale three-dimensional wire drawings I had been making. In order to practice the new process on my own, I made a series of small photogravures on the backs of old plates. I never stopped.  

A few years later after moving to New York and starting my own printshop, I was a resident at the MacDowell art colony where I started to expand on the complexity of the models and setups that I photographed.

When I build models now I start with an inspiration that has embedded itself into my memory and try to re-create not its accuracy but its emotion. I start working from what I remember and have to reinvent what I don’t, leaving out superfluous details. In that process I bring in my personal experience, related images I have seen elsewhere, references from literature or art history.  That way the image is transformed and takes on a new life. I build these models almost exclusively to be looked at through a camera lens, which obscures its scale and suggests a larger world. The process of photogravure further transforms them into a timeless image. My goal is to create images that reflect a collective memory of dreams longing and desire.

Click here to view our online exhibition of Photogravures by Lothar Osterburg.

You moved from Germany to New York at a young age, you have several studio spaces in the city and you told me once that you were always the best-dressed person when you moved to a new area but when you left you were the worst-dressed - what is that all about? 

First, I was not all that young when I moved to the US. I was 25 when I moved to San Francisco in 1987, and did not move to New York for another 7 years.

The best dressed person comment was an inside joke on my 10 years in Manhattan’s West Chelsea area. When I established my printshop on West 26th Street in 1994, I was one of the artist pioneers moving to that area. My first clients complained how far away from the nearest subway stop I was, but 10 years later many of them had opened their own galleries right around the corner from me. In that time the area had come up from a derelict warehouse district with hookers at night to a hip art gallery area. When I moved in I was one of the best-dressed people around, when I moved out, I was one of the worst-dressed people, without having changed how I dress...

A lot of landlords use artists to improve an area to then develop their properties, displacing the artists who have helped them putting the neighbourhood on the map. This first happened to me in San Francisco in 1991 where we battled the building owner of my “South of Market” studio for 2 years before they bought us out and turned the building into luxury lofts.

I did not have to move out of my Chelsea studio because my rent had increased unreasonably or I was forced out, but because my space had been very small and after 10 years it was time to upgrade. But even there, my landlord promoted the transformation of his building from garment sweatshops to artist studio building actively, and in the first years my studio was on the visitor’s circuit and helped generate a New York Times article about the next “hot” real estate area. Soon after, the first galleries moved in, displacing the hookers, and the area was re-named “West Chelsea”.

In 2003 was able to find a studio space within a 15-minute walk from my Brooklyn home and quadrupled my studio space. I was there for another 12 years before my landlord changed the rules of the building making it impossible for me to stay. In the time I had been there, the industrial area of my studio developed with a Whole Foods opening right across the street. In 2014 I bought and converted an old barn in the Hudson Valley close to Bard college where I teach and moved my studio a year later. 

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