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Dye Transfer Printing

The Artistry Of Black & White ~ In Three Colors

It took some time for photography to be accepted as an art form. The masters: Adams, Steiglitz, Weston, etc. did more than make superb images, they turned printing into an art form.

For color photography the process took longer for the complexity of printing did not lend itself to fine tune the print, except for one process. In dye transfer printing the three primary colors are separated and then combined when the dyes join on the paper in the final step. With individual black and white negatives tone scale and such are there for each color.

But that is just the beginning: the matrices that carry the die to the paper can be adjusted in contrast and density. Furthermore the dyes themselves, simply by changing the pH can be increased or decreased in contrast and thus change the color saturation and also color balance. However, there were trade offs.

Time was increased more than by a factor of three. In total eleven black and white films were needed to make one color print. And there was one additional potential for failure: the three sets of films had to be in perfect registration.

My solution to this problem was to design and build a darkroom specifically for makeing dye transfer prints and when I build I build. Jokingly and seriously I call my work “Elephant Grade Construction: if one is enough and two is overkill I put in four.” I seldom have problems with whatever I build. This darkroom took one year. You can see images from a slide show made in my lab by clicking here Making a Dye Transfer Print.

Naturally that is not the end of the story. There was an almost unheard of upgrade for dye transfer: making 32" x 40" prints. More on that below. But no second thoughts.

Below, three matrices waiting to be put into dye baths.

The three matrices ready for printing.
Rolling the cyan matrix. Note the full color image to the left side.

Above the final cyan matrix is rolled onto paper that already has yellow and magenta transfers. The slide show offers more detail. The important part of this is that the dyes are separate from making the printing matrices eliminating the complex chemistry of color printing paper. So called “chromogenic dyes” or “incorporated color-coupler dyes” must accomplish so many functions at once that dye purity is sacrified.

If you are familiar with the meaning of “color density” you will appreciate how extraordinary was black density of 4.0 or 10,000 to 1. Digital struggles for a density of 2.0. However, as with most things in photogrphy, there is more than meets the eye. That super black is not needed often, but the incredible control that digital offers is a game changer. Also, digital inks are no longer dyes, but pigments so display life is much longer. And more.

32" x 40" Dye Transfer

Unheard Of

Unheard of, at least outside 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".

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 toumbstone 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 toll 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 supply has a large one. 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 hols 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, 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.

Green and Yellow Grass, Blue Water

Green and Yellow Grass, Blue Water

Upper Hadlock Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine. October 1986
cat. JW 0176

Reeds, Wind & Blue Water I

Reeds, Wind & Blue Water I

Upper Hadlock Pond, Maine October 1991 JW 4528

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