The restrictions on movement resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic quarantined South Africans in their homes, and for artist William Kentridge this included his studio. A side effect of the quarantine was that it created space, in an overloaded schedule, for the artist to re-examine his own creative process through a series of short episodic films and relating photogravures. It is in the studio where the artist experiments with methods and materials, and the Studio Life series provides a fragmented glance into the artist’s thoughts, process, and life in the studio.
Very briefly defined, photogravure is an intaglio printing process that involves etching a photographic image into a copper plate. The plate is wiped and printed in the same manner as a traditional etching and therefore can be editioned, and the plates reworked, just as any other intaglio print. The actual photogravure process of getting that photograph onto the copper is much more complicated, requiring specialized equipment and skills. The Studio Life photogravure series, published by David Krut Projects, and managed by master printer Jillian Ross, requires the additional expertise of Zhané Warren, of Warren Editions, Cape Town, to produce the plates and the editioning finesse of printer Kim-Lee Loggenberg of the David Krut Workshop, Johannesburg to be realized as final works on paper. Kentridge, quite familiar with the potential of photogravure as a medium, has used the process on several previous projects, including Zeno Writing, 2002, Zeno II, 2003 (both published by David Krut) and Receiver, 2005, amongst others. These early photogravure works were printed by master printer Randy Hemminghaus, whom Krut invited to Johannesburg in 2002 to introduce the process to South African artists.
Each Studio Life photogravure starts as a photograph taken by either William Kentridge or, where Kentridge appears in the photograph, Chris-Waldo de Wet, Kentridge’s Johannesburg studio production manager. The photography for the gravures has occurred during the making of the Studio Life films. As a parallel body of work, the photogravures add to the narrative of the films, depicting the studio as the physical place where the action occurs, but also as a central character with a leading role to play.
Once the plates arrive at the David Krut Workshop, Kim-Lee Loggenberg runs a series of proofs to find the right color and transparency of ink to create the richest tonal quality and mood that Kentridge ultimately is going for with the series.
Studio life: Felicia Ida Felicia (2020), second in the photogravure series, illustrates how the process can influence the image. For the final impression, a small sheet of Gampi paper has been cut to fit to the size of Felicia’s image to bring the portrait forward, adding dimensionality while softening Felicia’s features, providing the portrait’s realistic feel. This subtle touch is one of the many reasons Kentridge gravitates towards the process and is using it in this case instead of straight photography.
The amount of information in a photogravure plate is quite high, requiring extraordinarily high pressure, along with dampened paper to pull out all of the tones and subtle details during printing.
William Kentridge signing the editions in his Studio Life series.
The photogravures series is being released in pairs, unfolding with the artist’s films. There are currently six photogravure images, which were drawn from the first four films available: Studio Life: Third Angle Projection (2021), Studio Life: Exercise 2 (2021), Studio Life: Exercise 1 (2021), Studio Life: Blackboard (2021), Studio Life: Felicia, Ida, Felicia (2020) and Studio Life: The Philips Room (2020). Read more about the Studio Life photogravure series here.