EPIC King Crimson Photogravure Box Collection by Tony Levin


by Anthony Garone  

Bass legend Tony Levin performed with King Crimson for more than 40 years and took countless photographs on and off stage. He spent the last few years selecting his eight favorites, and is now releasing them as a high end commemorative set of archived quality handmade prints. They’re being produced by printmaker and publisher Jon Lybrook of Intaglio Editions located near Boulder, Colorado. And for the past several months, I’ve been working with Jon and Tony on getting the word out about this special collection. The eight selected prints are:  King Crimson Asbury Park 1982, Bill Bruford, Bristol 1981, Adrian Belew, Backstage 1981, King Crimson, Faro, Portugal 1982, Robert Fripp, Krakow, 2019, King Crimson at the Royal Albert Hall, 2019 Perkins Palace, marquis 1981, and on the Shinkansen 1981. I interviewed Tony in November 2021, about his history with photography and his work with King Crimson. Check that video out if you haven’t seen it because he gives a great background on this print collection. And on his own photographic approaches, which involve foot pedals, squeeze boxes, his early foray into digital photography and more.

The King Crimson photogravure prints are beautiful. And I’ve actually had various proofs of them here in my studio for several months. Jon Lybrook sent them to me in these big black ribbon tied portfolios. But I recently received the special edition print collection box with all eight prints, white gloves and the works. It is absolutely gorgeous and one of the nicest material objects I’ve ever had in my own home. Now, I’m not much of an art collector, but I can tell that people who really care about owning art and archival photographs are going to love this set. I originally got involved with Jon because, Paul Richards from the California Guitar Trio had a couple of collections of his own photographic prints by Intaglio Editions, and they’re wonderful. Most interesting is his broad chalk collection of prints from his time living with Robert Fripp, in the 16th century reddish house in England. There’s a whole Wikipedia page about that house if you want to read about it, and maybe someday I’ll release the footage of Paul talking through his photos.

 So once I saw Paul’s prints, I wanted to learn more about the guy making them and how his crazy brain works. It turns out that Jon Lybrook is a big music fan, especially of King Crimson, and he makes prints for several artists, including Jerry LoFaro, who painted the modernized Tarkus cover of the Keith Emerson tribute concert DVD. Pretty cool. 

I spent a day in the summer of 2021 with Jon in his studio learning about the entire printmaking process, and it’s pretty astounding. Intaglio printmaking is a very time consuming work of manual labor and is almost entirely analog. He starts out with a digital photo and does all his mixing and mastering and then etches the image onto a steel backed photopolymer plate. It’s a photographic process with an insanely bright light bulb and some complex computations and Old World machinery to get the tones just right. And once the plate is ready, the manual labor begins. Jon takes an inked up roller and smothers the plate to prepare it for the print. He then wipes the plate smooth with cheesecloth, so the ink sticks to the dark parts of the image. He then takes a large sheet of paper which has been soaking in water for an hour. He blocks it so it’s just the right dampness and runs it through his printing press a bunch of times to flatten it perfectly smooth. Then finally he takes the inked up printing plate on the press bed where it’s now ready to be printed. And what I’ve just summarized in a few sentences takes at least 20 to 30 minutes of work to prepare. 

Once the paper is placed carefully on the plate. Wool blankets are put on top of the paper and the plate and then turning what looks like this giant captain’s wheel from a large boat. The entire press bed glides under the big metal cylinder applying thousands of pounds of pressure on the paper and the plate. And this process transfers the image onto the paper. And voila, there is a beautiful archival print at the end made only of low-acid, traditional etching paper and oil-based ink. Now each of Tony Levin’s eight prints will be made 500 times which will take Jon several months to complete. Each comes numbered hand titled and individually signed by Tony along with a signed and numbered certificate of authenticity, which is also signed and stamped by Tony and printmaker Jon as I mentioned, I’ve seen these prints in various states from pre-production to final editions. And these final editions are gorgeous. They’re 500 bucks a piece, or you can buy the whole set of eight with the collector’s box for 3700 bucks. When I started this project with Jon and Tony, I knew next to nothing about the printing process. But now I can say I’ve seen the work from start to finish, including the final product. And it’s seriously impressive. If you’re a fan of King Crimson, and you want some really nice collectibles on your wall. This is the set you need. So check it out at tonylevinprints.com. 

Now let’s take a look inside the box. Maybe that’s what you’re waiting for. So I’m just going to open it up carefully, because this box is like it’s really beautiful. And I just, it’s not mine. I don’t want to do something to it. So it’s pretty heavy. Actually, before I open it, let me tell you picking this thing up, I’m going to guess it’s five to seven pounds. You can see it’s pretty thick. I mean, it’s got to be. Yeah, like I said five to seven pounds. And it opens really beautifully. It’s really a solid construction, I’m going to guess this is wood. And there’s wood lining the whole thing, including this back panel and the top. And then it folds open like this, but I don’t want it to fold all the way back and crease. So you can see the white gloves here that come with the box. I’m just going to close this before I do something stupid. So the gloves are, you know these nice fabric gloves. And then inside this folder here, is a letter from Jon about the prints and the collection. And then here are the certificates of authenticity. So you can see here. I think you can this is the certificate on the lower left is a signature from Tony, on the lower right is Jon’s signature with the stamp. It’s like an embossed stamp. 

I’m not going to take all eight out there pretty heavy stock paper pretty thick, which is great. Then let’s take a look at the prints themselves, which you’ve already seen in this video. But I’ll just show you live. Now this one is my favorite. This is the Royal Albert Hall print. I love this one because it’s. I love the aspect ratio. I know that sounds funny or silly or trivial. But just like with Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, you know, he uses just certain dimensions. And I just love the aspect ratio on this image. I love how the light is cast on the whole crowd and the venue. I don’t know how Tony did this, but the light in the center of the crowd. And the whole band is right up front. It just feels like you’re part of a scene. Like a lot of the other prints are, they’re great. And you do feel like you’re there in a one on one scenario. But I feel like this print in particular, is just immersive. It’s like you are at the venue you’re on the stage, you see everything that’s going on. And anyone who knows King Crimson knows that. If there’s a photograph being taken by the band, it’s at the end of the show. And you can see Robert holding his camera out taking a photo. So this is Tony taking a photo of the whole band. Although Tony’s not in this one. He is in other photos. But yeah.

I love this print. And then inside the box, all of the prints just have wax paper between them. So there’s the print, there’s a sheet of wax paper behind it. And then there’s the next print. I don’t want to screw anything up here. So I’m just going to close the box. Just so precious, I just and they’re not mine, so I want to take good care of them. Anyway, so that’s the box. That’s the collection. It’s gorgeous. I think of it is like 3700 bucks is like a really high end instrument. And this is like a really high end set of pieces of art and you get eight of them. So I think it’s well worth the price. But yeah, check them out at tonylevinprints.com. And if you pick one up, let us know leave a comment and let us know what you think of it. Cool. Hope you enjoy it!

Fifteen Year Challenge for Finer Polymer Photogravure Prints

When I first put my procedure for making and printing polymer photogravure plates online in 2006, it was after a few years of my own frustrations in the process. I posted it in response to a lack of comprehensive information about the subject as it pertained to creating continuous tone images for photography. The traditional printmakers weren’t concerned with it, and the computer nerds (of which I am one) didn’t have any meaningful elbow grease or track record when it came to making traditional intaglio prints.

Jon Lybrook, Master Printmaker, Intaglio Editions
Jon Lybrook, Owner and Master Printmaker, Intaglio Editions

Picking up where others’ work had left off, I created a custom workflow and process compensation curve to accommodate a finer, higher-resolution aquatint screen than anyone else was using at the time. Our screen is 2-3 times as fine as traditional rosin dust used for aquatinting copper photogravure plates. At 1200 dpi, our fine, third-generation, heavy-duty aquatint screens with custom stochastic pattern are a double-edged sword. We don’t sell them to the public because they are less forgiving than coarser screening processes, but yield superior, fine continuous tones for photogravure when handled and used under a controlled environment using the tried-and-true KM73/83 plates by Toyobo, for which our screens and system for making continuous tone plates was designed.

While excellent technical books on polymer platemaking and creating digital negatives for contact printing are now available, there were but a few good ones in 2004. The only one most of us referenced was written by digital negative pioneer and process wizard Dan Burkholder. Today, faster methods to getting inkjet-quality photogravure prints from polymer, such as Direct-to-Plate (as taught by printmaking instructor Don Messic) and reliable, open-source software for calibrating your printer drivers for making custom digital negatives now exist.

While direct-to-plate (DTP) is easier and faster to teach polymer plate making certainly, it does not employ a critical, secondary aquatint layer to create the proper plate texture and variable depths. This is what gives photogravure its unique 3D qualities, otherwise you’re just printing a flat inkjet print that’s been transferred flatly to a plate. This critical aspect of plate depth and ink relief is among the most apparent qualities in traditional photogravure prints – when made on on finer, Asian, gampi papers, in particular. While hard to demonstrate in a digital image, the look of a traditional copper plate photogravure, when executed properly, is unmistakable.

Cross-section of photogravure plate
Illustration by Peter Miller

While DYI is all the rage, some artists need an experienced, dedicated technical collaborator who understands their goals. Finding someone who has an intimate knowledge of the photo mechanical process as well as intaglio printing itself, is still the same today as it was 150 years ago. Finding such an experienced artisan is certainly harder than it was way back then.

Intaglio Editions 20 x 30" large plate
Intaglio Editions 20 x 30″ large plate

As far as process and workflow, not much has changed at Intaglio Editions in our 15 years working with artists, clients, and their collaborators. We still create custom plates to meet client specifications including plates crafted for a specific ink color. In proofing the work with the client to refine the nuances and going back to the digital file and reshooting plates as needed, we have been able to provide the optimal prints our clients demand for their fine art projects. What has changed since the early 2000s is our ability to branch out into new territory, following the traditional processes, bringing the use of polymer even closer to the look (and literal feel) of traditional copper photogravure, without the added toxicity and expense.

Isabel Eaton - Polymer Photogravre printed ca. 2009 by Jon Lybrook
Isabel Eaton – Polymer Photogravre printed 2006 by Jon Lybrook

What makes Intaglio Editions Premium Photogravure Plates different is our custom, high-resolution aquatinting process, and our ability to offer extra large pre-made plates up to 23″ × 39″ (among the largest commercially available). While other methods are limited in size and often leave tell-tale “salt-and-pepper” grain in their photogravures, our traditional double-exposure method creates a more authentically etched plate and print, but at a price. It is more time-consuming and requires more steps and attention to detail than other methods.

So why do we do it? This extra work our process requires follows closer to traditional platemaking methods and gives our custom plates the edge, literally. Unlike newer plate processes, the surface of our plates have detail and textures can be felt by the fingertips. This demonstrates how we provide the smoothest continuous tones possible with this process more in keeping with traditional photogravure plates. Our plates and prints have been praised by artists, photographers and printmaking experts worldwide for their fine nuances, smooth tones, and shadow detail.

Intaglio Editions continues to offer the photogravure-quality plates we use in our printmaking to professional artists and printmakers who love making rich, photographic prints, but who may not be interested in becoming expert platemakers as well. This helps our friends and customers get faster results, and helps them achieve that last stride of excellence that so often eludes newer plate makers, or those new to photogravure printmaking.

New and experienced printmakers alike may want to take advantage of our long-standing $99 Trial Plate offer. We’ll create an 8″ × 11″ plate of your custom image using our custom, double-screened, high-rez platemaking method for just $99, to see if our plates don’t provide the smoothest, richest continuous tones you’ve ever seen from this process. Shipping, handling and customs, duties, or other fees will apply. Our Premium Photogravure Plates and other customer services are available at the Intaglio Editions Shop.

Quick History of Photogravure

Edward S. Curtis as a young man

Edward S. Curtis as a young man

Arguably the most beautiful, challenging, and labor-intensive of the traditional photographic processes, photogravure printmaking is among the earliest, dating back to the mid-1800s.  Best noted in the work of Edward S. Curtis in his epic anthropological study “The North American Indian”, which he editioned from 1907-1930, the photogravure quickly gave way to more affordable silver-gelatin printing popularized by Eastman Kodak’s Brownie camera. Prior to Kodak, artists, the church, and businesses primarily turned to printmakers who used presses to render quality images for distribution.  Photogravure has come out of the long tradition of intaglio printmaking whereby artisan printmakers, working in conjunction with artists, would create an image by carving, engraving, or etching (with resists and acid) into a metal substrate, wiping oil-based ink into the grooves or pits created, and then running it through a printing press onto dampened paper.

While there are traditional printmakers still employing copper plates to make photogravures, most have moved on to use steel-backed polymer plates due to the quality, consistency, efficiency, and the more environmentally friendly nature of that approach. Polymer plates are both photosensitive and water-soluble, allowing the image to be etched into the plate using water instead of acid. The polymer plate method was introduced to the printmaking world in the 1970s by Dan Welden, a veteran artist and printmaker who discovered the fine art application of these plates, which had only recently been introduced by the semiconductor industry, where they were (and still are to some extent) used to cast molds for creating printed circuit boards.

Regardless of the technology used to create a quality plate, the true artistry and craftsmanship comes through in how the plate is printed.  The type of inks and modifiers employed,  the method of wiping, the level of care taken, the choice of paper, the amount of pressure given at the press, and method of drying and flattening the final print are only a few of the many variables that come together to create a high-quality, hand-printed, photogravure print.  More information at http://intaglioeditions.com