« Index Prints | Main | Blog Note »

Wednesday, 13 March 2019


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Writing on the back of a print with a pencil is a bad idea in my experience - the writing comes through on the print itself as a raised contour, certainly if the pencil is fairly hard. Ink or soft pencil tends to rub off onto the next print in the pile.

I think a better idea is to write on one of those self-adhesive labels that you can peel off a backing and put on to the back of a print without damaging it.

I bought a couple solid graphite pencils, General’s Woodless Graphite 97-4B, that write well on the back of modern photo papers. Only about 2 dollars each. I prefer them over pens. It’s likely best to just take a print into an art store and try out a few pencils to see what works. In my experience standard 2B pencils don’t work well.

This will be obvious to most printmakers, but it bears repeating. Make sure the print is face down on a hard surface before writing on the back of it. If you're using anything other than a very soft-point ink marker (which I don't recommend), you'll ruin the print by embossing the surface. I always use a soft graphite pencil with the print on a glass plate.

Verso inscriptions remain the best, most inseparable strategy for adding essential reference information to a print. This information should be as spare as practical but should include:

- Authentication of authorship (signature or stamp)
- Reference of the image (title, index number/name, etc.)
- Date image was captured.
- Date the print was created. (And who made the print.)

- For future conservation reference it's a dream to also include the print's paper or medium and ink used for the print. If the print was made commercially on a medium other than paper and you do not know with certainty such details, at least note the service's name and date printed.

For contemporary ink jet prints inscribe the back with pencil if the surface permits it. Unfortunately many types of paper do not, as they are somewhat plasticized. For those surfaces you can use archival pigment markers*, whose ink will permanently remain on the surface and will not seep, bleed, or, when dry, rub onto another surface.

For prints made on, or bonded to, other media (acrylic, aluminum) you'll have to be guided by the manufacturer's suggestions. DO avoid office-class adhesive labels, especially on plastics, as they invariably turn to gooey mush over time. Paint-based markers are sometimes used for inscribing such media.

* NOT oil-based markers such as Sharpies! You can find archival pigment pens in all widths and colors under brand names such as Micron (Sakura), Prismacolor, Graphik, and Staedtler.

I print with 1 inch borders and write with pencil across the bottom verso of the print. Title, date taken, my name, date printed, etc. By writing across the bottom I'm not dragging my writing hand across the print area. If you need to add more comments, print smaller or use larger borders. I think a great alternative would be an archival grade self adhesive label of a relatively thin media that could be printed on a regular inkjet printer and affixed to the border area. Just type in all necessary comments for several images and print an entire sheet at once. Anyone know if this exists?

1 Stamp print on back
2 Slip print into a Printfile clear archival sleeve
3 Put stamped sleeved print into an archival box.
4 Repeat

While I can’t say I’ve been doing this, I do from time to time sign prints that I especially like. I print my best stuff on a high qualtiy fiber base paper (current choice is Hahnemuhl Photo Rag Baryta) The back side is perfect for writing with a pencil.

I make the caption a part of the photo.

As the original artist, I can write on the back more freely than a later conservator could! And lots of modern inkjet papers can be written on in pencil, either ordinary pencil or Swann Stabilo.

My rule for valuable historical artifacts is that I can't modify them; so the writing must be on a separate object. Nested bags can preserve this rule and sitll keep the ID reliably attached to the object. Also, photos of the object with the ID can help (not for close variant prints, but at least for the easier question of which image was meant by the ID).

I thought we went through this on TOP some time back when considering how to sign a print. The consensus seemed to be to use a Pigma Micron pen made by Sakura of Japan. I went to my local art supply store and bought a set, which I have been using ever since. They seem to work well on any type of paper, and don't transfer to other prints. After I have signed the print, I just add all the other stuff. No need to make it complicated. Of course, I will need to wait for a century or two before I can say for sure, that this works.

I should add, that I put the signature and all other helpful information on the back of the print, not the front, where it would be distracting.

I write with indian-ink (carbon pigment ink) on the back of the prints.
More archival than the prints themselves and no danger of seeping to adjacent prints (once its fully dry)

I love the idea of incorporating some meaningful text with a photo, as it adds another opportunity for some artistic expression. Ansel Adams had his portfolios printed by the finest book printers in San Francisco, the Grabhorn Brothers, and they used typefaces and page design explicitly intended to support and amplify the message of the photographs.
It's easy to add text in the typeface of your choice below the image, where it can be visible or concealed by the mat as you see fit.

When you open Photoshop (without directly importing a file) there is an option in the upper left of the screen to “Create New” - it allows you to create a document (or document preset). Just drag the photo onto the document from Bridge and add a text box in the margin for your explanation. It is the process that you’d use to make a poster, collage, etc.

I write on the back with a medium (HB) pencil. Graphite is archival. When wearing my amateur genealogist's hat I have observed on old family photos that many inks fade but pencil does not. I have not experienced any transfer to other photos. Perhaps if you used a soft grade (B-6B) that would be a problem, nor have I had a problem with embossing that shows on the face. Use a light touch, enough to leave a legible mark but not so much pressure that you are compressing the paper. Do it on a stiff surface, not a soft one. India ink is another option albeit a bit of a nuisance due to drying time.

I use matte inkjet papers and a #2 pencil pressed lightly on the back of the print. In Artspeak: giclee fine art cotton rag prints, notated with charcoal in verso. That sounds more high falutin'. Whatever, no indentations and no smearing when done properly. You can even erase mistakes and do over.

How about chemical prints on oversized paper. Print any and all information on the white margin that would be covered by the mat on a framed print. In the past, pen-an-ink was used on B&W negatives to put text on photos (see Idny 500 qualifiers from the 1940s).

What type of print are we discussing? Gelation Silver, platinum, or pigment print (from an Epson printer)?

Everyone has hit on the ways I have written on the back or front of the print for gelatin silver.

I add text to my photographs in a desktop publishing program and print out the text as part of the image with an Epson Printer. The text and print are complementary on the surface of the print.


Brooks Jensen of Lenswork fame has a whole article/video he published awhile back addressing the issues of provenance and authenticity on prints. His solution was a customized frame he created and printed on the back of his prints that allowed him to include as much or as little information as he desired. Since it was done at the same time and with the same inks as the actual print the only added information needed was his signature. (And I believe he used either one of the art pencils others have mentioned or India ink.)

I know my comment here is regarding a slightly different situation, but I was still taken aback by your comment, "One absolute requirement is that the information and the picture would have to be integral, i.e., some solution such as printed material placed in the same box but separated from the print is absolutely a no-go."

The above "requirement" would be rather hard to do in my case where I was an "activist" working to protect the redwoods in a future national park (and later expand it). Over a period from 1965 to 1978 I took over 5,000 images toward those ends. Prints that I made at the time were indeed labeled by me "in brief" and especially important was the date, since I was trying to often record impacts to potential park resources like clearcutting. I used a specific dating method consistently that would identify only one image by adding roll number and frame number to the label. So even a xerox copy of that image in the hands of a reporter far away from me could be identified by date alone, and I could provide that person all the details they desired to know. Of course, this method worked because I was alive, young, and available to annotate an image in real time. Sometimes it took hundreds of words to fully describe what a photo showed and why it was taken.

I donated all the images to the government in 1988. Later the Park Service had me scan app. 1,900 of the best shots. I am now in the process of working on those archival scans to have them reveal as much detail as possible and the color exposures to portray original colors - again, as best as possible. A typical archive scan of my 6x6 cm work is 40x40 inches @300DPI. Even greatly reduced Jpegs are several megabytes in size.

But back to the labeling issue: There is no longer any need to ever make a print - they are viewable on screen - so printing has been very selective and mostly for public display purposes. Annotation today often must apply to a file where no print exists.

Now that I am annotating many of these images for the first time 50+ years later, very few old original prints remain. I am using my old notes; writings from a deceased friend's journals which were documenting my activities at the time; and finally, pulling "stuff" out of my old brain which is still working!

All this accumulated data is going into an elaborate spreadsheet which will describe as best I can all 1900+ scanned images. One field of this file will have a summary discussion similar to what would have been written on the back of an original print.

To sum up: As long as someone can relate my name to the spreadsheet file, every single scanned image will be documented and can't be confused with any other. If any image is printed, that summary should be attached, as you suggest. The spreadsheet will preserve the historical nature of an image even if never printed.

I think what Ctein did on the Bridge print offered here a few years ago is a great way to add text to a print. The info was printed in the gutter area below the image. It allowed one to matt the print with the “artist signature” and/or with the full data of the print included in the visible area. I assume he used Photoshop to add a text box as needed for the information to print along with the photograph. Maybe you can ask Ctein?

Is becoming increasingly concerned with archivability and storage methods part of coming to grips with ones mortality? Asking for a friend.

Sakura Pigma Micron archival ink pens work well. As does stamping on the back with an ink made for non-porous surfaces.
I don't like that writing in the image area idea, but I have used text in the white border at the bottom of an image.

I make camera-scans of my negatives, for subsequent editing in Lightroom and then printing with an Epson P400.

I often want to add a title or note, plus a signature to the print. For this I use an Apple Pencil 2, which works only with an iPad Pro (I have the 11" model). This a very smart pencil -- it can write in any color or thickness you choose. The resulting doodle is not on the print, it is IN the print.

I use InDesign. Export image from LR, sized and sharpen. Then imports it into a template I have in InDesign. Then Export to PDF and have the print file I need when I want to make another print.

Learned it from a tutorial from Brooks Jensen in Lenswork.

I've always been attracted to the Brooks Jensen approach of printing on the front, including a signature. I think he does this in a way that allows you to matte the print to conceal the text, should you wish. The problem with this approach is the amount of space it consumes on the page. For framing or sale I use a fairly cut-down form of this, modelled on what traditional printmakers use. The Jensen form could be a good approach for printing for posterity.

Sometimes I also use a soft pencil on the back, and haven't had any of the problems described in a few other comments. I am attracted to a printed adhesive label on the back, and have seen this done, but worry about the archival properties of the glue. One variation, that I haven't tried, is to print a label on acid-free art paper and hinge it on the back using acid free matting and hinging tape (e.g. Lineco linen).

I usually add information to the digital file as part of the file. I add printed text at the end of developing the image in Photoshop, and when preparing it for printing. A one inch border around the image is normal for me so I have an area for handling and for matting. If you want the text to show after matting, then keep the text fairly close to the image. Keep in mind that the text that is to be shown be tastefully done by typeface choice, by font size, and color. You want it to be integral to the overall presentation. It is just as important as your frame and matte selection.

Another approach is to keep any text in the zone that will be covered by a matte. The idea is that if the print is ever removed, the creators name, title, and copyright notice will be revealed. This assumes that somebody will actually care about all of that information.

Lately I've been printing 11x17 on 13x19 paper, using a Canon P-100 printer, leaving a white margin all around. After printing, if I want info on that print I type it into a PS Type box, sized to fit along the very bottom half inch of a new Photoshop 13x19 file, using a font and size to suit (Times New Roman, 12 pt, for example). A lot of info will fit in a half inch by 19 inch box. Then I run the original dry print back through the printer again to print the info. The info is as archival as the print, and when matted doesn't even show.

And easier done than said, too.

I sometimes print with wide margin in bottom and write there with marker pen if it is something that is needed for the picture. A bit like old Polaroid prints that had the handle in the bottom.
The small (4×6) Canon dye sub printer has two perforated handles in top and bottom of print that can be removed. I sometimes kept the bottom one for a line or two of text. But now my second of those printers has also stopped working. They are not durable at all. I am not keen to buy another. But it was quite handy small printer while it worked.
One can of course write on the back of any print with a sharpie as well. But I don't like to write on the image area, whether in front or behind.

Don't mark the print. From a contact / small print create an image (or write) metadata.
Could be the image takes up .25 of the print, metadata takes the rest using todays tech.
Then file the metadata along with the master. Matching the two is easier than marking a master.

Print with large borders on 8x10 or A4.
Write with pencil on the “Fronto”.
If it’s framed, the mat will cover the writing.
If it’s scanned, include the writing.

I sometimes use Linen Hanging Archival Acid Free tape to add notes to the back of mounted prints. Write the note on the tape first in pencil and then dampen the tape to activate the gum and place at the back of the document. This gum is water activated and so can also be easily removed using water. The same tape is used to hang prints on mounts or when framing.


If you have a digital file another way would be to increase the size of the canvas and create a blank border and include information there as part of the print, sort of as Mr. Krieger did, just not in the image area. From my experience working with art and historical documents, if you write on the back of prints, I would write in the borders, not in the image area as pressure could telescope through to the front of the image and inks can potentially bleed through over time. Self adhesive labels will also eventually fail as the glue will dry and lose its tack. Water based adhesives, such as wheat or rice starch paste, or methyl cellulose (wallpaper paste) work better in my experience and are reversible.

First comment, although a (paid) lurker for years. Hardly archival best practice, but I was recently asked by my 30-something daughter for copies of her early photos. These were all prints in albums, so I bought a decent macro lens, made a digital copy of each print, and then using my iPad Pro, edited each for consistent results, then used the Apple Pencil to write a caption on each of the 160- odd images.
These were then played as a slideshow on our TV in Apple Photos to great acclaim, and will be shared with siblings.
Hardly non-destructive, but fast, reasonably representative of the originals, and great fun for all.

I figured out a way to use the Canvas feature in PS Elements. I created four templates, 4x6 and 5x7, landscape and portrait. Across the bottom I create a zone for the text. Then I "Place" a photo into the upper photo area and drag one corner so's to fit the photo to the space, leaving a border. (The aspect ratio of the print may not match the area exactly.) Then, in the narrow space at the bottom I enter my text: name, place, date. The latter two are not always available of course.

It's been a while since I created these templates and my process has become rather automated - so my procedure may be a bit sketchy. Would it help to show a typical finished print? If so, I will need help on how to enter an image.

My process is a bit different, and luckily it has become a habit which is probably the point.

Anything with one star gets printed 4"x 6" and then filed in archival boxes from B&H. For the larger select prints I use boxes similar to the Lineco boxes you linked (My boxes are from Archival Methods.).

I have found the Zig Millennium 05 Pen to be the best of the lot to mark the back of photographs. The one caveat is to let the ink dry prior to filing. All prints are marked with the month, year, place, and my initials.

I have a 4' x 8' section on wall in my home office that is magnetic paint. Groups of newly minted 4x6 prints get posted on this wall while I wait for the ink to dry. It takes a few hours but the prints generally hang longer. After 'living' with them awhile select prints begin to emerge. Next I pick some selects to print 6"x 9". If I get excited about that print I may print 8"x 12".

I also print collections into books. My personal work ends up in 8"x8" perfect bound, paperbacks. My family photo albums, such as a not too recent trip to New Zealand, get a bit more upscale handling -- 10"X 8" hardcover with captions etc. My wife keeps these as momentos and a way to show off to friends and family.

Who knows where all of this stuff will go after I'm gone in 10-15 years (20 if I'm, ahem, lucky).

Will removable self-stick labels work, or will that affect the print eventually?

I should add that my approach deals with a _scan_ of the original. And the original often has data on the back in pencil, in my grandmother's handwriting. This data forms the text I enter under the photo. I make prints of the finished product using Paul Roark's carbon inkset on acid-free paper. I make two prints, one of just a scan of the photo and one of the titled version.

I use the soft pencil/hard surface method described above, with maybe one difference: I print smaller than the paper with a bit of white space at the bottom of the paper. I can sign the front (if the buyer wants), but more importantly, there's a space on the back that is open and won't mess with the image.

Back in art school, we'd spray the back (the back only, Vasili) with sealant, too.

Like others, I prefer to leave a margin and to use very soft pencil on the back of the print, in the margin area. (That is, when I remember to label at all!) But I wanted to point out that archival pigment ink markers are also available. I believe we've discussed them here on TOP.

Adhesive tape or labels worry me, even if archival. Too many parts and too many corners and edges...

As Herman Krieger wrote, one can print anything on the face of a digital print, on or off the image. Technically, that's probably the safest solution, but for many of us that's an aesthetic Rubicon. Probably worth crossing, but difficult.

The Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) makes this recommendation in their leaflet on the https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/5.-photographs/5.3-care-of-photographs”>care of photographs:

When labeling a collection, use the reverse of the photograph, along the edge. An ordinary lead pencil is best for handwritten labels. On coated surfaces, like RC paper, use an archivally-safe tool such as a Berol Prismacolor pencil in “non-photo blue 919”, a Berol china marker in “brite blue 167T”, or a PITT Faber-Castell Graphite Pure 2900B pencil.

I had a stamp made and used to fill details about the print there with a very soft pencil. Saw it first on a Jock Sturges print in a gallery, but I like Keith’s idea.

The Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) makes this recommendation in their leaflet on the https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/5.-photographs/5.3-care-of-photographs”>care of photographs:

When labeling a collection, use the reverse of the photograph, along the edge. An ordinary lead pencil is best for handwritten labels. On coated surfaces, like RC paper, use an archivally-safe tool such as a Berol Prismacolor pencil in “non-photo blue 919”, a Berol china marker in “brite blue 167T”, or a PITT Faber-Castell Graphite Pure 2900B pencil.

The Northeast Document Conservation Center makes this recommendation in their leaflet on the care of photographs:

When labeling a collection, use the reverse of the photograph, along the edge. An ordinary lead pencil is best for handwritten labels. On coated surfaces, like RC paper, use an archivally-safe tool such as a Berol Prismacolor pencil in “non-photo blue 919”, a Berol china marker in “brite blue 167T”, or a PITT Faber-Castell Graphite Pure 2900B pencil.

I'm sure other graybeards remember when prints came back from Kodak with the month and date printed on the border. I've often wondered why the on-line print services don't offer a optional entry box for several lines of data or the option to automatically print EXIF data on bordered prints. They could monetize the whole process as "The Museum Experience" or "The Curator's Toolbox".

A very fine black Sharpie on the back of RC prints. Keep the comments in the back of the border section, not behind the image itself. As to archival, I'm 74, so that won't be my problem and the identification will probably be of some use to whoever finds the print.

I’ve struggled with the same problem as well, and I started using a couple of strategies thinking they could help. I’ve had my website up since 2003, and when posting new images, the HTML code has spots—Meta Tags—for Keywords and Descriptions. They’re there to help search engines find relevant search results, but over the years they don’t count as much since people quickly learned to manipulate them—especially porn sites. In any case, I make sure that those tags have content and I copy what I have in the description to the ALT image attribute (The ALT tag is seen when the image can’t be displayed, like when Windows is configured for those that are sight impaired).

In 2016, I began a blog to document our trip to Alaska, and it worked to keep friends and family up-to-date on our progress. After we returned, however, I had a blog engine without steady content. I tried for a couple of years to make something of it, but as Mike can attest, blogs have become a dime a dozen, so I gave up. Sometime last year I decided to use it as a journal and tell the story behind my weekly image posts. Each week, I add a new image to my New Work section and then write a 3-500 word essay describing the location, what that place means to me, and why I chose this image. Finally, I link both pages to each other. I don’t see much additional traffic, but it’s there if a viewer wants to learn more about my work.

The final thing is something that I learned from Brooks Jensen—editor of Lens Work. In PhotoShop, each file has an information attribute. (File>File Info …) This is a spot where you can keep your contact, copyright, and descriptive information. There is a lot of information in this file, almost too much to manage, but publishers use this for captions, credits, and things like that. To simplify it use, you should start by picking a picture and filling out the boxes like copyright information, photographer’s name and contact information and those kinds of things. Then save that block as a template. Then with each new image, you can open the File Info and import the template, after which you can add the information specific to your photo like Caption, location, and so on. Once this file is complete, the picture info is kept with your image and is transferred to each new copy that you make, whether it is a PSD, JPEG, or PNG. It’s difficult to be disciplined to fill out this information out regularly, but doing so also helps track pirated images.

I hope my suggestions help.

It just occurred to me that maybe there are some people who don't rummage around in newspaper morgues and probably don't know what is on the back of news photos, so here you go

@ Tim Auger: I did that to many prints in the 1990s. Now, 25 years later, those prints are indented where the label sits. Ruined.

Aperture (yes, I still use it) allows me to print a caption below the image, reducing the image size, close to Malcolm's idea but a bit simpler. I'd assumed that other photo management software would offer a similar option. So far, I haven't done this; as I can only print to A4, I like to maximise the image within that boundary. But I think if I were deliberately printing for permanence, I'd be inclined to do it... on a much better printer, of course.

Mike, I thought this was well-established decades ago? You can write on the back (or on the front, if you want) of a print with an India ink pen, such as a Rapidograf or Rotring technical pen. The pigment is permanent once it is dry and does not bleed to other surfaces. I use India ink to write on the leading or trailing ends of negatives to add date, my name, and, sometimes, location.

There is the Sakura Pigma Micron Pen that comes in various sizes. But I prefer the Platinum Carbon ink, available in bottles or cartridges, loaded into an inexpensive Platinum Preppy Fountain Pen (in the finest 02 tip). Waterproof and archival, this combination writes well on glossy or pearl surfaces, though it takes a while to dry. In a hundred years we'll know which one is best :)

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007