Carbon print

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A carbon print is a photographic print with an image consisting of pigmented gelatin, rather than of silver or other metallic particles suspended in a uniform layer of gelatin, as in typical black-and-white prints, or of chromogenic dyes, as in typical photographic color prints.

1932 Carbro process color print by Nickolas Muray.

In the original version of the printing process, carbon tissue (a temporary support sheet coated with a layer of gelatin mixed with a pigment—originally carbon black, from which the name derives) is bathed in a potassium dichromate sensitizing solution, dried, then exposed to strong ultraviolet light through a photographic negative, hardening the gelatin in proportion to the amount of light reaching it. The tissue is then developed by treatment with warm water, which dissolves the unhardened gelatin. The resulting pigment image is physically transferred to a final support surface, either directly or indirectly. In an important early 20th century variation of the process, known as carbro printing, contact with a conventional silver bromide paper print, rather than exposure to light, was used to selectively harden the gelatin. A wide variety of colored pigments can be used instead of carbon black.

The process can produce images of very high quality which are exceptionally resistant to fading and other deterioration. It was developed in the mid-19th century in response to concerns about the fading of early types of silver-based black-and-white prints, which was already becoming apparent within a relatively few years of their introduction.

The most recent development in the process was made by the American photographer Charles Berger in 1993 with the introduction of a non-toxic sensitizer that presented none of the health and safety hazards of the toxic (now EU banned) dichromate sensitizer.

Carbon tissue

Carbon tissue is a gelatin-based emulsion used in the chemical etching(photoengraving) of gravure cylinders.[1][2] This was introduced by British physicist and chemist Joseph Swan[3][4] in 1864.[5]


Carbon materials marketing began in 1866 by Swan, those ready-made tissues were in three colours black, sepia and purple-brown.[2][4] This method was used in Europe and USA throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th.[2] This market was almost closed in the 1950s although some companies produced a small quantity of carbon tissue and transfer papers for monochrome and three-color work until around 1990.[2][4]


The gelatinous emulsion is applied to a paper backing, and is rendered sensitive to light when immersed in a 3:4% solution of potassium bichromate. After drying, it is ready for use. The carbon tissue is first exposed to a film positive. In those areas where the carbon tissue has received the most light (i.e., non-image areas and highlights) the emulsion becomes thick and hard, and the thickness and hardness decreases with decreasing exposure to the light source, the emulsion being thinnest and softest in image areas corresponding to shadows and solids. After developing the carbon tissue, it is adhered to the surface of the copper-plated cylinder. A solution of ferric chloride etchant is applied to the surface of the cylinder, where it eats away the copper through the carbon tissue. In the highly exposed areas, where the carbon tissue resist is the thickest and hardest, the etchant takes a long period of time to eat through the hard emulsion, while in the least exposed, thinnest regions the etchant eats through the resist into the copper very quickly. Thus, in a given period of etching, the cells etched into the copper will be deepest (and thus will print the darkest) in those regions where the etchant has eaten through the quickest, while the cells etched into the copper will be the shallowest (and thus print the lightest) in those regions where the etchant has eaten through the slowest.

Carbon tissue resists were the first chemical etching media, but have been replaced by photopolymers, and chemical etching as a whole is being increasingly replaced by electromechanical engraving and computer-to-cylinder laser-cutting processes. (See Gravure Engraving.)

Carbon tissue resists have also been used extensively for the manufacture of photostencils in screen printing.

Overview and history of carbon printing

The carbon process, initially a black-and-white process using lampblack (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 is based on the fact that gelatin, when sensitized to light by a dichromate, is hardened and made insoluble in water when exposed to ultraviolet light. Because of the comparative insensitivity of the material, sunlight or another strong source of UV light is normally used in order to minimize the required exposure time. To make a full-color print, three negatives photographed through red, green and blue filters are printed on dichromate-sensitized sheets of pigmented gelatin (traditionally called "carbon tissue" regardless of the pigment incorporated) containing, respectively, cyan, magenta and yellow pigments. They are developed in warm water, which dissolves the unhardened gelatin, leaving a colored relief image that is thickest where it received the strongest exposure. The three images are then transferred, one at a time, onto a final support such as a heavy sheet of smooth gelatin-sized paper. Usually, the yellow image is transferred first, then the magenta image is applied on top of it, great care being taken to superimpose it in exact register, and then the cyan image is similarly applied. A fourth black pigment "key" layer is sometimes added, as in mechanical printing processes, to improve edge definition and mask any spurious color cast in the dark areas of the image, but it is not a traditional component.

The resulting finished print, whether composed of several layers and in full color or having only a single monochrome layer, exhibits a very slight bas-relief effect and a variation of texture on its surface, both distinctive characteristics of a carbon print. The process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Each color carbon print requires three, or four, round trips in the darkroom to create the finished print. An individual, using existing pigmented sheets and separations, can prepare, print and process enough material, 60 sheets including the support, to produce about twelve 20" x 24" four-color prints in a 40-hour work week. However, this investment of time and effort can create prints of outstanding visual quality and proven archival permanence.

  • 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.
  • It is 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
1798 Louis Nicolas Vauquelin French Influence of light on silver chromate
1826 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce French First permanent photograph of the image formed by a camera lens
1832 Gustav Suckow French Chromic acid salts are light sensitive, even without silver
1839 Sir John Herschel English Introduction of the word "photography", early experiments with creating prints in various colors
1839 Mungo Ponton Scottish Action of light on paper coated with potassium dichromate + washing = fixed image
1840 Edmond Becquerel French Action of light on paper coated with potassium dichromate + iodine fumes = fixed image
1852 William Henry Fox Talbot English Dichromated gelatin rendered insoluble by exposure to light
1855 Alphonse Poitevin French Invents photographic printing by dichromated pigment process
1855 James Clerk Maxwell Scottish Color photography by three-color analysis and synthesis, proposed in passing in a paper on color vision
1858 L'abbé Laborde French Principle of exposure through the base then transfer from one base to another (see Fargier)
1860 Fargier French Principle of exposure through the base then transfer from one base to another (see Laborde) but the image is reversed
1860 Blaise French Double transfer to get a non-reversed image
1861 James Clerk Maxwell Scottish Demonstration of photographic color reproduction by synthesis (additive method, three images superimposed by projection through filters)
1862 Louis Ducos du Hauron French Photographic color printing by the three-color subtractive method proposed in an unpublished paper
1863 Pouncy English Uses sensitized inks
1863 Poitevin French Modification of his process: insolubility of the pigmented gelatin then solubility by exposure through a positive film
1864 Joseph Wilson Swan English Swan process: uses rubber for the transfer
1867 Charles Cros French Unaware of work being done by Louis Ducos du Hauron (see 1862) invents similar methods for photographic color reproduction
1868 Marion French Procédé Marion: Uses an albuminated paper for the transfer
1868 Louis Ducos du Hauron French Patents the basic principles of most of the practical color photography processes subsequently developed
1869 Charles Cros French Publishes Solution générale du problème de la photographie des couleurs
1869 Louis Ducos du Hauron French Publishes Les couleurs en photographie, solution du problème
1869 Jeanrenaud French Double transfer with an opal glass
1870 Gobert French 1870-1873 printing on metal plates
1873 Marion French Mariotype
1873 Hermann Vogel German Discovers dye sensitization of silver halides, making creation of three-color separation negatives practical
1878 Louis Ducos du Hauron French Publishes improved methods of color photography and printing by the carbon process
1878 Fredéric Artigues French Charbon velours
1881 Charles Cros French Tricolor process prints presented to the Academie des Sciences (French Academy of Sciences)
1889 Artigues French Papiers charbon velours
1893 Victor Artigues French Carbon velours à tons continus de 1893 à 1910
1894 Ladeveze Rouille French Papier gomme-chrome
1899 Thomas Manly English Ozotype derived from mariotype
1899 Henri Theodore Fresson French Procédé Fresson: sold in USA between 1927 and 1939 by Edward Alenias.
1900 Fresson French Papier charbon Satin then papier Arvel to be processed with chlorine
1902 Robert Krayn American N.P.G. Process: tricolor carbon process distributed in France by La Société Industrielle de Photographie
1905 Thomas Manly English Ozobrome process: instead of exposure to light, contact with a silver bromide print selectively hardens the dichromated gelatin
1913 S. Manners English Ozobrome
1919 Autotype English Carbro process based on Manly's ozobromie, Sold by Autotype in London from 1920 to 1960
1923 H.J.C. Deeks American Raylo: three color carbon
1951 Pierre Fresson French Quadrichromie Fresson
1982 Archival Color Co. American TriColor Carbon Pigment Prints/Materials developed by Charles Berger manufactured by Polaroid
1993 UltraStable Color American Ultrastable Color System; Four-Color Carbon Pigment Films developed by Charles Berger.
2006 - now Tod Gangler American Art & Soul Photo, Seattle, Washington, Four color carbon prints and metallic quadtone black & white carbons
2006 - now John Bladen Bentley Canadian Verve Gallery of Photography, living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Four colour carbon transfer prints

See also

External links


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