Carbon print is surely one of the most beautiful photographic print techniques invented by men. This article traces the history of its invention and describes the unique characteristics that made it the king of the print techniques. There’s also a technical introduction to the process and a succinct bibliography.

Historical note on carbon print

At the beginning photography produced unstable images. Just think about the first pictures printed on salted paper by Fox Talbot since 1841, when there wasn’t an adequate fixing bath yet. Later on, numerous processes were activated, such as protective gold or selenium toning, that still are in use today to preserve analogical pictures. But stability in time still was the weak point of photography.

Palladium or platinum print and carbon print were two of the most stable and beautiful techniques of the entire history of photography that the researches for the problem we talked before found.

Even if the first carbon print patent date back to 1855, the image only contained shadows, lights were completely washed away. After the well-known remarque de Fargier about the hardening deepness of the gelatin and the invention during the following years of the image transfer, the carbon print technique was patented in 1865 by Joseph W. Swan, under the form we still use nowadays.

The prints obtained with this method solved the problem of the stability and moreover had an extraordinary fine and defined image. Amazing when one thinks that they were produced only with animal gelatin and powdered carbon.

Therefore, the carbon print knew a great success and was considered more and more the best technique print ever. It has been largely used till the fifties, when its industrial production stopped completely. Today, printing with this technique means build all the material with your own hands, and unfortunately the complexity of the procedure limits its diffusion.

Characteristics of the carbon print

Carbon prints are absolutely the most stable. They’re not made of a metallic deposit, which can be attacked or oxidized, but made of a pigment, simple carbon dust at its origin, watercolor or tempera nowadays. Those pigments derive from some kind of grounds and therefore are completely inactive. Photography history has less than a couple of centuries and all the questions about the conservation of the image on the really long term are still open. Antique paintings and cave art survived through millenniums, so carbon prints, manufactured with the same ingredients and pigments, should have long life.

Apart from its great stability, carbon prints are characterized by an excellent gamut, rich and long, and by the sensation of presence that turn it into unique productions. This is due to three reasons:

  1. All of the great silver chloro-bromides fiber paper printers know that the glossy paper valorizes shadows and produces more intense blacks. At the same time though, high, finer and more delicate lights can be obtained only on matte paper. Carbon print is brilliant in shadows and opaque in lights, for that reason it is possible to obtain the best result for the entire gamut.
  2. The print is not constituted by a metallic depot (silver, platinum, etc) that penetrates into the fibers of the paper, but by a pigmented, more or less thick gelatin layer fixed on the paper. This augments the micro-contrast and gives the sensation that the picture “comes out” of the paper.
  3. The sensation of a three-dimensional presence is augmented by the fact that the surface of the print is not smooth. The gelatin layer is more thick in shadows and finer in lights. This difference of thickness can be more than 0.3 millimeters and it is perceivable to the naked eye.

Almost a century and a half after its invention, all of the characteristics we talked about before made this technique the best one ever.

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