In 1839 the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot became the first successful printmaker in the history of photography. At last, because of Fox Talbot’s discoveries photographic images of the natural world could be fixed on to paper. However, many if these images faded away in a matter of days or even hours. And so with the invention of photography was born the problem of image permanence.
Fox Talbot and his successors embarked on a quest to perfect the photographic print. These inventors attempted to improve the quality of photographic capture as well as to make a beautiful print that would not fade. Experiments with iron, silver, mercury and gold led to finer and finer images, but a truly permanent print remained elusive.
In 1855 a Frenchman named Alphonse Louis Poitevin succeeded in creating a new and permanent photographic process. Poitevin mixed a pigment made of carbon black into an emulsion of gelatin and dichromate. After exposing this emulsion to light through a negative the pigmented gelatin was washed in a warm water bath. There, unexposed gelatin areas would dissolve and wash away, but an image formed of hardened carbon pigment would remain. This printing technique was named the Carbon Process, after the carbon black that was used as its primary pigment.
For several decades in the late 1800s the process thrived. Carbon prints are both permanent and beautiful. By 1869, Adolphe Braun of Alsace was making up to 1,500 carbon pigment prints a day, mostly reproductions of old-master drawings and paintings. Also in 1869, Louis Ducos du Hauron made the very first color photographic print using the carbon pigment process. Three separate emulsions of blue, red and yellow pigments were combined in careful registration onto the same paper support to make a full color image.
While prized for their beauty, carbon prints have always been extremely difficult to make. In the 1920s, the process was re-invented with variations as the Carbro Process. In 1946, Kodak developed the Dye Transfer Process. Instead of containing pigment, exposed gelatin was used to transfer dyes to a sheet of paper to make an image. While still technically demanding, this process improved control in printmaking and fostered the growth of color photography for art and advertising.