During a visit to New York and while fatigued from intensive sightseeing, I was drawn into a sleek silver DKNY shop on Firth Avenue. There next to an assortment of severely coloured jeans was a neat stack of expensive photography monographs. Not the kind of bargain bookstore encyclopaedias of fashion photography of the '50s and so on, but the very best catalogues from some very astute dealers of fine photography. One book stood out, an immaculately printed catalogue of Josef Sudek’s carbon prints, the kind of book you rarely see in a photography bookstore, let alone an upmarket jeans shop.
Sudek as it turns out, restricted by the apparent lack of sensitivity offered by conventional gelatin silver materials, made a body of work using a nineteenth century printing process. For about seven years in the late forties and early fifties, he reprinted many of his finest images using a pigment printing process on fine rag paper, the kind of material usually reserved for artists. Sudek was drawn to a more tactile kind of outcome for his images, a kind of paper that could echo his feelings for an older and better kind of photography.
The pigment process shares many of the advantages of today’s innovative digital printing techniques by using tactile papers and a wider range of image tones permitted by conventional photographic toners. In fact, apart from completely dissimilar processes involved, the end results can appear very closely matched.
Sudek’s prints were made using carbon tissue, a process that transferred the image onto a receiving sheet of cotton paper. Like lifting off the emulsion of a peel-apart Polaroid and placing on paper, the carbon tissue process brought with it four fabulously delicate edges of unexposed tissue surrounding the final image. These edges accompanied the image like a signature and defined the print as a hand made entity in its own right.
Making a carbon tissue print
By using a digital process to mimic these vintage results, there’s absolutely no reason to be purist about any part of the process whatsoever. All elements of the process and the final print can be manufactured in Photoshop, rather than sourced in the real world through hard-won research. Illogically, its important to plan the final steps of the process before the first and decide on the kind of paper you’d like to print out on. Sudek liked to print out onto cream or ivory cotton papers, some of which over time have acquired a creased and mottled appearance. There’s no point in searching out a top quality cotton inkjet paper which has the right kind of cream base coat, because it's easy enough to invent it yourself. What you will need to find however is a top quality inkjet paper which has a tactile finish and good weight for the task, such as Somerset Velvet Enhanced. Leave the paper to one side.
Texture and ageing
With any inkjet print the last thing you want to do is to dye or stain your printing paper and toss another chemical variable into an already crowded ring. Instead, artificially age your paper by scanning in an already existing sheet of suitable material. Good things to look for are old sheets of good quality writing paper or if you want to introduce an element of ageing, some old and preferably damp books which have unprinted endpapers or blank pages to scan. Even if there’s more than a bit of unwanted matter on the page, such as text or illustrations, you can still remove it with Photoshop’s rubber Stamp tool after scanning. The texture and base colour are important, these examples were taken from a Victorian diary picked up at a car boot sale for their fabulous mottled effect and edges. After scanning, the central coloured block illustration was cloned away and an Add Noise filter was applied over the retouching to minimise the visual ‘smoothing’ effect created by the rubber stamp. Capture in RGB mode and to make a large original, set your scanner input resolution to 300dpi. If your paper is monochrome, like writing paper, change the mode to Greyscale and save and store as a TIFF file, as you can always change to RGB and colourise later on. A good idea is to build up a library of paper textures, colours and finishes and make high-resolution scans and store them on a CDR for future use. When you are ready to start, mix a desirable base colour using your Colour Balance command and use Levels to alter the paper contrast. Avoid making this colour and contrast too intense, as the background paper only needs to show the slightest tone and texture and not pull attention away from your main image.
Making the tissue
Use an image that would benefit from the process, either colour or black and white originals will do, but you will need to convert to RGB before you experiment with tone colours, (above). Use the Colorize option in the Hue Saturation dialog to create a warm gold brown tone. Next, you want to open the scanned paper image on your desktop and have both images side by side for easier working. Check that both images are the same resolution, then Edit>Select All, Edit>Copy the photographic image, then Edit>Paste in into the paper image. If your originals were different dimensions before starting the process you’ll need to resize one or the other so they acquire the proportions you want. You can now close down the photographic image, as its no longer required.
Next, you’ll need to select the photographic image which has been pasted into its own layer, so make sure this layer is active. You can use a variety of selection tools to make this happen, but there is a much easier way to do this kind of operation. Place your cursor over the layer thumbnail (the tiny image icon in the layer palette), press and hold down the Command/Ctrl key, then click once with your mouse. This immediately makes a selection of the layer content, irregardless of its complexity or shape.
Once you’ve made a selection around the photographic image, you’ll need to stretch it outwards so it becomes bigger. From the Select menu choose Transform Selection and with your fingers held on the Shift+Alt keys, drag one of the corner handles outwards until you make it bigger. Using these keys allows you to transform from the centre outwards. Now click on the paper layer and notice how the selection still remains. Do a simple Edit>Copy, Edit>Paste and watch how a third layer is created with an exact copy of a portion of the paper texture. Name this layer ‘tissue’ to make things easier, (left).
Drag this tissue layer in between the photographic layer and the paper layer, at this stage it should still be invisibly merging with the paper underneath. Now to recreate the tissue edge, open your Levels dialog and drag the midtone slider a little to the right. This will have the effect of darkening the tissue layer and visibly separating it from the underlying layer, without looking false. Don’t overdo it at this point as a slight darkening is all that’s needed.
No carbon tissue print was ever produced without some blemishes or has survived without some discolouration to edges, so this is the next step to take. Working on the tissue layer, quick select it then pick the burning in tool from your toolbox. Set it up with a small soft edged brush and reduce its Exposure to around 30, so its effects are gradual rather than full on. The purpose of using this tool is to try and introduce some fake fogging or colouration to the edge, so apply the tool in areas that are traditionally fogged i.e. edges and corners. To finish off, use the Airbrush set with the darkest colour sampled from your photographic image to intensify these fogged patches. Finally, you may want to modify the too-perfect rectangular shape of your tissue by using the eraser tool. Take a few chunks out of the sides and corners and roughen it up a bit. If you take off too much, use your History palette to retrace your steps.
Soft edges: Now you’ll notice that your image will be looking too rectangular with razor sharp sides and edges, so you’ll need to soften these down a touch. The effect to aim for is jut like the kind of soft edge you create in the darkroom when enlarging a negative without masking off the diffused edges with your easel. Return to your photographic image layer and quick select it. Now, from your Select menu, make a Select>Modify>Contract command with about 8 pixels. This has the effect of pulling in your selection by an equal amount from each edge. Next you want to soften this edge by applying a 4 pixel Feather to it. Finally do a Select>Inverse, then Edit>Cut and this will cut away the excess edge to create a softer and more convincing look.
Tweaking the image: After all the processing has been completed, the only steps left are to adjust image contrast and tone. At this stage the photographic image layer will still have its original contrast intact and will look as if its floating over the paper, rather than impregnating it. You can’t have an image that has highlights brighter than the base colour of your paper, so click on the photographic image layer in your layer palette.