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A carbon print is a photographic print produced by soaking a carbon tissue in a dilute sensitizing solution of potassium dichromate. The solution also consists of carbon, gelatin, and a coloring agent. The process was created as a result of print fading in early photographic processes, and was patented in 1864 by Joseph Wilson Swan.

An Overview and History of Carbon (Pigment) Printing

The carbon process, initially a black and white process using lamp black (carbon black), was invented by Alphonse Poitevin in 1855. The process was later adapted to color, through the use of pigments, by Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron in 1868. Carbon printing remained commercially popular through the first half of the 20th century. It was replaced over time by the dye-transfer process, chromogenic, dye-bleach (or dye destruction, i.e., Cibachrome) and, now, digital printing processes. The efficiencies gained through these more modern automated processes relegated carbon printing to the commercial backwaters in the latter half of the 20th century. It is now only found in the darkrooms of the rare enthusiast and a few exotic labs.

Carbon printing relies upon the ability of gelatin, when sensitized to light by a dichromate, to become insoluble in water after exposure to sunlight, or its modern equivalent (UV). Three successive layers of gelatin, containing first yellow, then magenta and finally cyan pigment, are, one at a time, exposed, aligned (registered) and then transferred onto a white opaque support (substrate, base or carrier, i.e., paper or melinex) and processed in warm water (≈100 °F to 105 °F). A fourth layer of black was added later on to improve density and mask any spurious color cast in the shadows. The unexposed areas, which remain soluble in warm water, are washed away, revealing, according to the inverse of the exposure, the underlying white support. This creates a bas-relief effect of varying texture and finish on the surface of the print that is the unique signature of the carbon process. Each color carbon print requires three, or four, round trips in the darkroom to create a finished color print (see CMYK). An individual, using existing pigmented sheets and separations, can prepare, print and process enough material, 60 sheets including the support, to produce about 12 - 20" x 24" four color prints in a 40 hour week.

  • It should be noted here that the carbon process is typically used to produce;
    -Mono-chrome prints, usually B&W, but often sepia, cyan or any other preferred color.
    -Duo-chrome (duo-tone) prints, an effect many printers are familiar with, using complementary or associated colors to their best effect.
    -Tri-chrome prints, a traditional full color print made by layering Y, M & C pigment sheets.
    -Quadra-chrome prints, basically the same full color print as the tri-chrome with the added finishing layer of black (K) to add density and mask spurious color in the shadows.
  • That noted, any combination of layers, in any color, are possible to achieve whatever ends the printer desires.
  • Its also important to mention here that there are two primary techniques used in carbon printing, single transfer and double transfer. This has to do with the negatives (separations) being right or wrong reading and the image "flopping" during the transfer process.

Because the carbon printing process uses pigments instead of dyes, it is capable of producing a far more archivally stable (permanent) print than any of the other color processes. Good examples of the color stability of pigments can be found in the paintings of the great masters, the true colors of which, in many cases, have survived all these centuries. A more contemporary example of the color stability of pigments is found in the paints used on automobiles today, which must survive intense daily exposure to very harsh lighting, under extreme conditions. The useful life of many (but not all) pigment formulations has been projected out to be several centuries and beyond (perhaps millennia, if cave paintings of Lascaux, the wall paintings in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and the frescoes of Pompeii are relevant examples), often being limited only to the useful life of the particular support used. Additionally, the use of pigment also produces a wider color gamut than any of the other color processes, allowing for a greater range and subtlety of color reproduction.

Though carbon printing always has been, and remains, a labor intensive, time consuming and technologically demanding process, there are still those that prefer the high aesthetic of its remarkable beauty and longevity over all other processes.

Chronological History of Carbon (Pigment) Printing

Date Name Nationality Remarks
1798Louis Nicolas VauquelinFrenchInfluence of the light on the silver chromate
1826Joseph Nicéphore NiépceFrenchFirst picture in April 1826
1832 Gustav Suckow French Chromic acid salts are light sensitive, even without silver
1836 Sir John Frederick William Herschel English Invention of the word "photography"
1839Mungo PontonEnglishAction of the light on paper coated with potassium dichromate + washing = fixed image
1840Henri BecquerelFrenchAction of the light on paper coated with potassium dichromate + iodine fumes = fixed image
1852William Henry Fox TalbotEnglishInsolubility of gelatin by potassium dichromate under influence of the light
1855Louis Alphonse PoitevinFrenchInventor of photographic printing with dichromated pigment process
1858L'abbé LabordeFrenchPrinciple of exposure through the base then transfer from one base to the other (see Fargier)
1860FargierFrenchPrinciple of exposure through the base then transfer from one base to the other (see Laborde) but the imaged is reversed
1860BlaiseFrenchDouble transfer to get a non-reversed image
1861James Clerk MaxwellEnglishPrinciple of the trichrome separation influenced Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron
1862Louis Arthur Ducos du HauronFrenchTricolor carbon process, see Charles Cros in 1867
1863PouncyEnglishUses sensitized inks
1863PoitevinFrenchModification of his process: insolubility of the pigmented gelatin then solubility by exposure through a positive film
1864Joseph Wilson SwanEnglishSwan process: uses rubber for the transfer
1867Charles CrosFrenchTricolor carbon process. See Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron in 1862
1868MarionFrenchProcédé Marion: Uses an albuminated paper for the transfer
1869JeanrenaudFrenchProcédé Jeanrenaud: Improvement of the transfer
1869JeanrenaudFrenchDouble transfer with an opal glass
1870GobertFrench 1870-1873 printing on metal plates
1874VogelFrenchPrinciple of chromatic sensitization of the AgBr for the tricolor separation during the shot
1878Louis Arthur Ducos du HauronFrenchDescription of the heliochromie process
1878Fredéric ArtiguesFrenchCharbon velours
1881Charles CrosFrenchTricolor process presented to the "Academie des Sciences" (French Academy of Sciences)
1882Charles CrosFrenchTricolor process. Bulletin de la Société des Photographie
1889ArtiguesFrenchPapiers charbon velours
1893Victor ArtiguesFrenchCarbon velours à tons continus de 1893 à 1910
1894Ladeveze RouilleFrenchPapier gomme-chrome
1899T ManlyFrenchOzotype derived from mariotype
1899Henri Theodore FressonFrenchProcédé Fresson: sold in USA between 1927 and 1939 by Edward Alenias. Bought by Luis Nadeau, Canada, 1979
1900FressonFrenchPapier charbon Satin then papier Arvel to be processed with chlorine
1902Robert KraynAmericanN.P.G. Process: tricolor carbon process distributed in France by La Société Industrielle de Photographie
1906T ManlyFrenchOzobromie
1910ArbuthnotEnglishDichromated watercolor or dichromated lavish
1911DovertypeEnglishSold in England by the Dover Street Studio, London, 1911-1914
1913S. MannersAmericanEarly form of three color carbro 1913-1922
1919H.F. FarmerEnglishCarbro process based on Manly's ozobromie, Sold by Autotype in London
1920H.F. FarmerEnglishCarbro Tricolor 1920 to 1960 by Autotype
1923H.J.C. DeeksAmericanRaylo: three color carbon
1950KoloroÏdAmericanDichromated colloid: carbon transfer process
1951Pierre FressonFrenchQuadrichromie Fresson
19653MAmerican3M Electrocolor Print 1965 to 1978
1977Kwik-PrintAmericanLight Impressions Corp , Rochester
1982Archival Color Co.AmericanSan Francisco: quad-color carbon process
1983George GriffinCanadianQuad halftone, duotone and mono contone carbon until from 1983 to 2006 Private collection of photographers work only.
1985PolaroidAmericanLaser separation + transfer of pigment on a base. Stopped in 1986: Polaroid Permanent Pigment Print
1986Jerry Kuska & Douglas MadeleyAmerican & CanadianFour color carbon prints, Limited Edition Photo/Graphics, Santa Cruz, California, until 1991
1993Charles BergerAmericanUltrastable Color System. Pigmented quadrichromy
1998Racey GilbertAmericanAtaraxia Pigment Prints, until 2004
2006Tod GanglerAmericanArt & Soul Photo, Seattle, Washington, Four color carbon prints and metallic quadtone black & white carbons

See also

External links



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

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carbon print

  1. (photography) an early photographic print made by soaking a carbon tissue in potassium bichromate


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