Calvin Grier – a master carbon printer and teacher

Anthony Mournian’s portrait of Calvin Grier a master carbon printer, from starting a Carbon printing service, his art and his eBook “Calibration for Alternative Photographic Processes” where we learn to calibrate prints.

Writer and photography / Anthony Mournian
Photography / Calvin Grier, Daniel Hall, Radka Tezaur, Rafael Rojas, Michael Strickland, Arun Patel, Angus Parker, Andres Lopez, Levon Biss, Alexander Nalivaev, Lena Bushart

Carbon print by Calvin Grier
Photo by Daniel Hall, Carbon Printing
“Birch trees, Denmark, Maine”
July 6, 2017 at 5:25 am
The image was taken July 6, 2017 at 5:25 am in Denmark, Maine. My idea of the ideal black and white photo is pure whites, pure blacks, infinite shades of grey, great depth, and great texture. I have wanted a photo like this for ages and that morning the light was excellent. I initially shot with a Fuji 6×7 film camera and my Hasselblad 500c/m, but decided to shoot backup/reference shots with my Fuji X-E2 and this particular image was shot with a 12mm lens. The film images came out very flat and very boring. The wide-angle digital image really added a nice depth… with the camera tilted down a bit to get the ferns it made the birch trees appear too aggressively lean toward the camera. I had to pull this distortion back a bit in post-processing. I have always been intrigued by “old fashioned” printmaking, especially after seeing such prints in person in galleries and museums. Calvin’s videos really caught my eye and I figured I’d do a few prints to judge the process. When I got this print back I was blown away. Perfect! White whites, black blacks, infinite greys. The most amazing part, however, was the 3-D layered look the process gives, really enhancing the depth and texture of the print.
I am no Ansel Adams and never will be Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, but looking at Calvin’s print gives me the same feeling as dunking on a 9-foot hoop or hitting a 300-yard drive!

In the timespan of well over a century and a half, the alternative photographic process called Carbon Transfer Printing has seen many changes. Like tributaries to a river, many individuals, including William Henry Fox Talbot, Alphonse Louis Poitevin, Louis Ducos du Hauron and Joseph Wilson Swan have contributed to the creation and evolution of this beautiful and permanent process.
The process wound its way through many evolutions, but none as great as the modernization of the process in the 1970s by Charles Berger. Berger made a huge update to the process, incorporating a stable and less toxic-non-dichromate sensitizer, Image-setter negatives, a pin registration system, plus modern color separation techniques, allowing the process to reliably reproduce a photograph.

Discovered by Alphonse Louis Poitevin in the 1850s, Carbon Printing on the one hand is probably the most durable and archival of all photographic processes. On the other hand, it is also one of the more daunting and complex processes, offering its rewards only to those with patience and fortitude, fine attention to detail, and a strong sense of self capable of dealing with frequent failure.
In the same way, a large-format camera demands a step by step progression to set up and capture an image, Carbon Printing requires multiple steps, each of which must be performed with care and in a prescribed order.

Daguerre’s groundbreaking Daguerreotype process gave superb detail, but the silver discolors with tarnish when not properly stored in a sealed display case and, without a negative, was not reproducible.

Carbon print by Radka Tezaur
Radka Tezaur
Carbon Print
The photograph depicts the ceiling
of Sajeongjeon Hall at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea, which . . .. served as the main king’s office where he carried his executive duties and held his meetings with top government officials. It is a part of my series of images of historic building interiors concentrating on architectonic details. . . .. The physical gelatine relief created by the carbon transfer enhances the rich texture of the beautiful painted carved wooden ceiling.

Henry Fox-Talbot’s competing Calotype process used sensitized or “salted” paper for his “Pencil of Nature” images, but was subject to fade with continued exposure to stronger levels of light. Not long after, Sir John Herschel helped solve the fading problems with his discovery of hyposulphite of soda, or “Stop,” as a way of preventing further development of an image, and by doing so “fixing” the image.

Poitevin‘s discovery of Carbon Printing shortly before the beginning of the Civil War in the floundering and divided United States of America solved the nagging problem of fade. The earliest stages of Carbon Printing involved coating pigmented gelatin directly on paper, which was sensitized with toxic Dichromate. The emulsion was hardened upon exposure to light through a negative, then the soft unhardened gelatin was washed away under hot water. Now there was a Direct Carbon Print, to be sure, but its tonal range was limited because of hardened gelatin being above the soft gelatin, which caused much of the tonal range to wash away during development.

Calvin Grier
Calvin Grier “Aida”
Color Carbon Print

Calvin Grier’s hero in Carbon Printing history is Sir Joseph William Swan. Building upon Poitevin’s discovery, Swan’s ingenious concept was to create separate support with the pigmented gelatin called the “tissue”, then “transfer” the image to a “permanent paper support.” Now the soft gelatin was above the hardened gelatin and could be easily washed away during development, leaving a much more refined tonal range. This is called a “single transfer carbon print.”
By adding the “transfer” step, Swan was able to easily make photographs with a much more refined tonal range. Swan patented the transfer process in 1864.

Generally known as Carbon Printing because of its original use of Carbon, or lampblack as the pigment, the Carbon Printing process can use almost any color pigment, alone or in combination. In other words, a Carbon Print need not be black and white, and it need not be monochromatic.

Carbon print by Michael Strickland
Michael Strickland
Sierra Wave
Color Carbon Print
“Throughout my photographic endeavors, I have always searched for the “perfect” representation of my work in print. . . .. [My] options for hand-made prints are limited. Holding Calvin’s carbon transfer print of my work in hand for the first time changed my entire perspective on what a photographic print could and should be.”
Piggybacking off the advancements from the end of the 20th century, enter Calvin Grier of Valencia, Spain. Grier, born in Minnesota, USA, had parents who encouraged, or at least allowed him to pursue his many and varied interests. When Grier was about twelve he discovered photography. He built himself a workspace in cramped quarters under a staircase and began to experiment with developing negatives. His interest in the process was intense, but it didn’t last be-cause music caught his young eye. He thought for a time he would become a concert musician in a symphony orchestra. Photography took a back seat for more than a decade while he studied music.

As time passed Grier realized he wasn’t happy as a musician, and needed a change. About six years ago he decided to put aside music and to devote himself to commercial photography doing weddings and sports events.

But did Calvin Grier really want to be a commercial photographer? Or was there a place for him within photography to which he could turn his talent for problem-solving while producing tangible products of his efforts? Commercial photography wasn’t as fulfilling as he had hoped and he realized, as with music, the problem was his need to create a tangible object with his hands.

Rafael Rojas Color Carbon Print
Rafael Rojas
Color Carbon Print

With a strong talent for problem-solving, a trait useful in photography as well as engineering, Grier likes to see a product of his own hand. Among other talents, Grier worked summers as a carpenter to help pay for school. He considered becoming a carpenter during 2014, then stumbled on the alternative photographic processes. For Grier it was the perfect combination: photography, problem-solving, and working with one’s hands.

Grier decided to try the Alternative Process of Carbon Printing, but with a twist. From 2014 to 2016 he worked twelve hours a day learning the ins and outs of Carbon Printing. It’s a long way from a “single transfer” with a commonly used Inkjet negative resulting in a black and white photograph, to a triple transfer color print going beyond basic CMYK color separations while introducing tonal separations along with Imagesetter negatives.

Calvin Grier Wetprint
Calvin Greier Wetprint

Calvin Grier decided to open a Carbon printing service, Wet Print. With capturing the image no longer his primary goal, Grier worked to become a master of printing the images for others. He put aside his commercial photography and opened Wet Print, a business devoted to the production of the highest quality Carbon Prints.

The biggest hurdles he overcame in the two years of testing were getting smooth highlights, creating a system for making tonal separations, and learning how to accurately “calibrate” a print.

Arun Patel, “Tree, Huangshan, China”
Arun Patel,
“Tree, Huangshan, China”

As his skill in making “Wet Prints” advanced, his business developed. Since 2017 he has printed for photographers ranging from enthusiasts to Oscar winning cinematographers. The prints shown here are accompanied by short statements by the photographers who made the original images.

Alongside his business of printing for others, Calvin Grier developed workshop courses. These are five to ten-day intensive workshops limited to four students at a time focusing on learning the fundamentals of Carbon Printing. In his studio in Valencia, Spain he has taught over 60 students from 25 countries.

Calvin Grier “Peony” Neutral tone Carbon Print Double Transfer
Calvin Grier
Neutral tone Carbon Print Double Transfer

An excellent, logical, well-organized workshop is worth its weight in gold. Many of Calvin Grier’s students travel long distances for his training and advice. The goal is for each student to leave the workshop with a successful Carbon Print showcasing the photographer’s artistry, and sufficient knowledge to return home to continue Carbon Printing using Grier’s methods. The workshops for 2020 and 2021 are sold out, with waiting lists for future workshop dates.

Calvin Grier’s latest E-book publication is “Calibration for Alternative Photographic Processes.” The course sequence takes the student through calibration in each step of the Carbon Printing process. Little of the actual carbon process is discussed because the goal is to make a process neutral E-book limited to calibration that can be applied to any of the alternative photographic processes that use a digital negative.

Levon Biss Ant Trapped in Amber Color Carbon Print
Levon Biss
Ant Trapped in Amber
Color Carbon Print

What is Calibration? It’s the correction of printed values against a traceable reference standard. As used in his e-book, Calibration involves setting a density, creating tonal separations and linearizations, (the even distribution or separation of tones,) then combining those elements to create the best print possible, or one that is as close as possible to the desired result.
In his introduction to “Calibration,” Calvin Grier says,

“A well-calibrated workflow [allows] you to predictably print a digital interpretation of your photograph. An un-calibrated print might come out too light or with too much contrast compared to what you had hoped for. This results in frustration and high costs in having to remake negatives and the print. Good calibration will eliminate trial and error from your workflow.”

There’s almost no information available on making alternative process prints in color, prints with tonal separations, or how to choose an appropriate density. Most publications for the alternative processes focus on linearization, but there’s much more to calibration. Calvin Grier walks the reader through all the steps needed to choose a correct density, to create and linearize tonal separations, and to use ICC profiles to create prints that look as expected. With proper calibration, there are no more prints that come out too dark, with banding, or with a color cast.

Traditional monochromatic black and white carbon prints require a single analog/in- camera, Imagesetter or digital negative. Carbon Color Prints, however, require individual negatives or color separations for each of the CMYK, or Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. The color separation negatives are combined during the printing process in a specific order. Grier begins with Yellow, followed by Magenta, then Cyan, and finishes with Black. The CMYK negatives are overlaid one at a time in sequence and in perfect register to complete the color printing process.

Angus Parker Lone Pine Carbon Print
Angus Parker
“Lone Pine”
Carbon Print

This introduces a complexity requiring a minimum of four negatives, (or three negatives in the case of a CMY print with no black, which is usually how analog color prints are made.) The levels of density in individual color separations, the number of negatives and number of separations increase rapidly. As each negative is added to the process, an additional printing “pass” is required. It doesn’t take long for the total number of “passes” to add up, and with it the requirement for exact registration of the negative, at the desired density and correct linearity. It’s easy to skip a step or to make a mistake in printing.

Andres Lopez Natilus Color Carbon Print
Andres Lopez
Color Carbon Print

A perfect Color Carbon Print requires perfection at each step. The result can be breathtaking, and rare.
In a traditional single transfer Carbon Print, using an in-camera negative or a digital negative there are a number of steps, each of which must be accomplished correctly and in proper sequence. Misstep at any stage and the print is ruined. Calvin Grier says in a single transfer print there are ten steps. A monochromatic print takes him about an hour.

Alexander Nalivaev Color Carbon Print
Alexander Nalivaev
Color Carbon Print

For a triple transfer six layer color print there are closer to 120 steps using as many as ten Imagesetter negatives and color separations. Again, each and every step must be performed with precision in proper sequence. Any misstep along the tortuous path ruins the print. Sum total: it can take a week or more to make a color print such as Michael Strickland’s “Sierra Wave,” or Calvin Grier’s portrait of “Aida.”

Arun Patel “Haifoss” Carbon Print
Arun Patel
Carbon Print

Grier says few people are willing to endure the level of frustration to reach the success rate for each step of 99.9%, in which case only about one in ten prints end up in the trash. At a 99% success rate for each step, over two-thirds of the prints are failures. For that reason, very few people print in color.

Lena Bushart Color Carbon Print
Lena Bushart
Color Carbon Print

Grier repeats with justification Ansel Adams’, “The negative is the score, the print is the performance.” You must know and understand the elements of the negative before you can put them together in the beauty of a nuanced and subtle final print ranging from the softest and most delicate high- lights of a print such as Grier’s
“Peony,” to the deep shadows of Arun Patel’s “Haifoss Waterfall” In 2020 and 2021 Grier plans to devote a major portion of his time to research. He plans to do a number of stability and permanence tests with different pigments, gelatins, and papers. Also on the agenda are to research alternative ways to harden gelatin, and to do another round of testing of available materials for the process as well as start applying his calibration methods to other processes. With too little time to do it all, he would like to write more books on the Carbon process as well as color theory and to work on a portfolio of his own photography and prints.

Calvin Grier is a master Carbon printer, an inspiring teacher and a clear, logical writer. If you want
to learn more about calibrating your prints in any of the Alternative Processes, click here to read more about Calvin’s latest E-book, “Calibration for Alternative Photographic Processes”.

Anthony Mournian writes the Photographers’ Formulary monthly newsletter, prints silver gelatins.

Get Calvin Grier’s book “Calibration for Alternative Photographic Processes”
Calibration for Alternative Photographic Processes by Calvin Grier

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Calibration for Alternative Photographic Processes

by Calvin Grier

A 4-part series on getting your alt. proc. prints right.
Become an expert calibrator.


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