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Dye Transfer Printing

Before Pixels

When photography was invented it was an extension of painting in that it captured a scene and a criteria was how “real” it appeared. Thomas Edison had the same issue with his first phonographs. Listeners were amazed how faithful the sound was, when truth be told, if you could recognize the instrument that was recorded then the talking machine was a success.

Photography was a bit better even in the early days. Although the images were black and white, the resolution was good as was the tonal range. And the technology (ignoring wet plates) was lens, film, develop and perhaps make a print.

So now we make two leaps, for I have been around for a while.

Modern color film arrived by ironic coincidence when two musicians in the employ of Eastman Kodak invented Kodachrome. The film was a quantum leap from everything that came before. One could use it today to make a fine image. Eliot Porter put color photography on the map with his color photographs of birds using 4" x 5" Kodachrome. He then printed these images using the dye transfer process.


Dye transfer printing was invented in the 1930s and was used in the Technicolor motion picture process and for making very high quality photographic prints. Until the mid 1990s it was the only way to print brilliant color and to control contrast and color saturation. It was, however, a very tricky process. Eleven black and white films had to be made in register before a print could be made.

I spent one year building a lab specifically for the process knowing that any glitch would throw everything off. I, and my dedicated associate Michael Conrad, printed from 1978 until 1993 when Kodak disontinued the process.

Among other accomplishments, we succeeded in making 32" x 40" prints, I think something unheard of outside of professional labs. I had to have a quarry in Vermont make the print rolling board. The pictures here were taken by Marlene Nelson in my lab for a slide show.

32" x 40" Dye Transfer

Unheard Of

Unheard of, at least outside of a major professional lab. My agent: “why would you do that.” After all, Eliot Porter was happy with 16" x 20" and considered large prints to be “wall paper.”

Well mother nature’s beauty extends to the very small, and I love the texture that adds to an image, and you see that best in a large print. Yet most of the best scenes are large. So 32" x 40" is a wonderful size. And a source of many large problems.

If you look closely at the picture above, you will see the roller and paper are on a piece of granite, about one inch think. That granite I can purchase from a supplier. But about 36" x 40" is not in inventory. What to do? Visit a tombstone supplier who directs me to a granite quarry in Vermont. This should be interesting. And it was.

Can you make this? Of course. Smooth and flat? Sure?

Returning in two weeks with a machinists long straight edge. Place it on the granite corner to corner. It is a dish. 1/8 inch dip in the middle. Can’t roll on that. O.K. Will regrind.

Two weeks later another visit. This time it is flat.

Is that the end of problems? Just beginning. An enlarger. Luck, a supplier has a 5" x 7". A vacuum easel to hold the matrix film during exposure. Make my own. Having one made would cost much. Enlarger high enough. Well we put the vacuum easel on the floor and the enlarger is within a whisker of the ceiling.

The Trays for the matrix film deveopment. Find a plastics shop. A darkroom sink to hold three trays? Well I built the first but my neighbor, a craftsman for sure and so Kip makes the sink. Plumbing? That’s me again. Heavy curtins to darken? A skilled seamstress. Keep the sink low so you can hold the matrix film high enough. My goodness, can all this work?

Being an engineer surely helps and the pieces go together, and wonder-tech Michael Conrad? Up to the challenge. And so, 32" x 40" dye transfer prints. When labs were closing down after Kodak cancelled the process, a dealer comes to us to finish a project of 32" x 40" dye transfer prints of Eliot Porter images to match those already made and it turned out made poorly but look wonderful. And finally we complete the order.

And so there is (or was, that’s a long time ago), $9,000 for a Dreamed Brook to hang in a penthouse on Central Park South in New York. And quite a few shipped around the country. Not too big afterall, but as large as possible for Kodak did not make matrix film any larger.

There is a coincidental connection between Kodachrome and dye transfer for neither uses chemicals that turn to color when processed. Kodachrome creates three negatives for the three primary colors and then the color dyes are incorporated during processing. It turned out that this was extraordinarily difficult to do and Kodak soon restricted Kodachrome to 35 mm where the process could run continuously with one roll simply glued to the end of the previous roll. Such processing was considerably simpler but was restricted to a few labs, some owned by Kodak, that did nothing but process Kodachrome. In fact, in the earlier years processing was included in the price of the film and a preaddressed envelop delivered the film to the lab. Other color films used chromogenic dyes (sometimes known as incorporated color coupler films) but the fact that the dyes were not a result of development made it possible for them to be of much higher quality. Exactly the same was true of dye transfer printing (see the images from my dye transfer slide show). And, of course, dye transfer was also difficult to do but was superior and I chose it as my method of making prints when I built my first lab in 1978.

In the meantime, however, Kodak had developed color film that used incorporated color couplers yet gave high quality results, especially the E6 process introduced in 1974, just in the nick of time as far as I was concerned.

When I began shooting with my 4" x 5" view camera in 1974 not much had changed except for the convenience of making reasonably accurate color photographs onto positive transparency film.

For the most part the leading photographers were taking pictures of something with an inherent interest, whether it be a mountain or a group of peppers. And if the medium was black and white, there was infinite expression possible in just how the print was made.

But there was frustration with making color prints. Not only was there little one could do in making the photograph (filters and polarizers did help) but prints were of dubious color quality and there was no reasonably easy way to control the contrast and color saturation. That changed with the invention of dye transfer printing in the 1930s (Technicolor movies were the same technology) where the three primary color layers in a negative or transparcy were separated and now by several different means the image could be adjusted (or manipulated). And since printing was done with pure dyes, rather than with papers containing chemicals that tured into dyes during development. It was a tricky process (I had to make 17 black and white films before I could transfer the dye to the paper. I chose to use it because of the control and quality of the image it offered. I built my own darkroom devoted from the ground up to making dye transfer prints.

Dye transfer still holds the record for intensity of color although the difference is insignificant for most images.

So here I was in 1978 using a process developed in the 1930s because it was the only process that put me in the same position regarding how the image looked as black and white printers.

Then my world fell apart: digital arrived and in 1993 Kodak stopped making dye transfer materials and we either went digital or went out of business. Digital cameras were horrendously expensive, digital printers were not yet adequate. We continued making dye transfer prints with the extra paper and chemicals we had, and we bit the bullet and laid out $35,000 for a drum scanner. Then came EverColor.


No Satisfactory Process

What to do? With the termination of dye transfer there followed a period of confusion.

None of the printers using dye based inks, such as the Iris printer, had adequate light fastness. The Iris was good for about two years. Attempts at improving it were only marginally successful.

Three pigment transfer processes were under development:

1. Ultra-stable Permanent Color Prints from a one person company in California. The man was Charles Berger. We experimented with this process for two years finally producing a dozen or so good prints. The process was finicky snd when we finished our experiments were told that all the materials had been revised and I decided that this would be too unreliable a process to work with.

2. Meanwhile Polaroid was experimenting with its own process and demonstrated it for us, but it was far from ready for prime time.

3. In California, Bill Nordstrom assembled a group of angel investors in an effort to take advantate of the Agfa-Proof process, normally used for making proofs for commercial off-set printing to adapte it for fine art printing. It seemed ideal in that it used a custom machine for processing and deposited dots of pigments onto a mylar base with no left over contaminants.

Agfa agreed to make runs of special pigments to improve color quality and EverColor was established. We did experiments with the process and it appeared promising. Then I was offered the position of CEO of Evercolor, accepted and moved the company to Worcester, Massachusetts.

However, despite the early results including outstanding light fastness, for some images (those with large areas of uniform color) the roller processing machine left traces of uneven pressure as bands of color variation. While attempting to solve this problem, Agfa discontinued the process because of the competition of digital printers. The investors in EverColor declared bankruptcy and closed the business.

The only process left was something called the LightJet that exposed conventional chromogenic papers with lasers. It produced excellent prints but with the limitations in light fastness of chromogenic dyes. Fuji produced a paper, Crystal Archive, that gave suprisely good lightfastness, but I considfered it insufficient. I closed the Worcester business and for ten years made occasional prints on the Light Jet at the E.B. Luce lab in Worcester.

In the meantime Epson was showing better and better results with its pigmented ink jet printers and in 2005 I purchased the model 9800. This produced excellent results. I have since upgraded to the 9900 and now the p9000 which produces excellent images and, with the latest inks, excellenet lightfastness. I expect this will be my final printer.

This short summary cannot convey the turmoil and costs of the down-time and ezperimental effort attempting to find a satisfactory printing method.

The p9000 will print on almost any material with maximum width of 44". Hundreds of papers and canvas materials are available. The downside is that with dye transfer we had almost no competition, the process was too difficult. Now, however, only the quality of images and skill in preparing them for printing are advantages.

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