I did not print my own work for my first four years of photographing, but I knew that soon it would be essential, particularly because of the limitations of film and the printing processes in common use in the 1970s.
Films, especially after the introduction of the E6 process by Kodak were much improved. Kodachrome was excellent but after a short time was not available for 4x5. That left direct positive printing, Ektacolor and Ilford which I dismissed because of the metallic look of the paper. Direct positive was of medicure quality which left Ektacolor which required working with a negative which meant shooting on negative film or making internegatives. It was possible to make excellent prints but control was still limited, which left dye transfer. Dye transfer was on the edge of posibility in a non-commercial lab but I felt it was the only alternaative.
Dye transfer was developed in the 1930s as a answer to a great need. It was the same process as used in Techniolor movies, which is why the colors in Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz are so brilliant and have survived the decades.
1. 1974—1978: Ektacolor done by a profession lab owned by a friend so they were made with unusual care. I was shooting Vericolor negativ e film at the time and have two large binders of contact proofs. There are few good images but I now work only with transparencies.
2. 1978—1993: Kodak dye transfer. Dye transfer was widely used in the graphic arts because of the flexability it offered, multiple transfers of different images, for example as well as contrast and saturation. With ther coming of Photoshop Kodak's businesss dropped by 90% since the only customers were a few fine art photographers. Kodak promised to continue the process but I suspect some environmental issues with the dyes would have required too much investment and so, despite promises to continue making the materials they stopped in 1993. We purchased about $10,000 worth of dye and paper so we could continue to print images for which we already had matrices. In the meantime two pigment transfer processes became available.
3. 1993—1994: Ultrastable Permanent Color Prints
This process was inventged by two men in California but was primarily the work of Charles Berger. It appeared to be a breakthrough since it was the first practical process to use pigments instead of dyes. Pigments promissed far higher lightfastness. However, the process never reached a practical stage. My associate, Michael Conrad and I worked for two years trying to make the pigments adhere to the printing film. Just as we thought we were successful, Charles changed all the formulations which would have pushed us back to square one.
4. Evercolor: 1994—1995. With the demise of Ultrastable we decided to try a Sacramento company that had adoped an Agfa offset-print proofing process called Agfa Proof. Its founder, Bill Nordstrum recognized it as a differnt and commerically viable pigment transfer process. It's advantage among other commercial processes was that there were no residual chemicals left after processing so the print was just pigment on mylar. Also, Agfa was willing to produce special runs of pigment chosen for the intense color and light fastness. It was capabile of making the best and sharpest prints I have everseen, and apparently extremely resistant to fading. To my knowledge no one has ever faded an Evercolor print including a year in full sunlight in California. Additionally Agfa was a rather substantial company able to back its products.
We had Evercolor make prints for us and they were excellent except we had no control over the color. However, for reasons I never found out, the chairman of Evercolor, came to visit and offered me the position of CEO, without my moving to California. I accepted, visited their facility and found they were having difficulties with the consistency of the process. I should have recognized that the causes were inherent in the process. My excitement about the potential quality overoad my judgment and I moved the company to Worcester in the same building with my lab and gallery. The short verysion of a long story is that we were unable to solve the consistency problem and after somewhat over a year Agfa discontinued the process for similar reasons to Kodak discontining dye transfer. Digital proofing processes were taking over proofing. This spelled the end of Evercolor and the company declared bankruptcy. The only remaining process was new equipment that used lasers to expose the paper used in the Ektacolor process. The color was excellent because of the digital processing possible in control of the lasers, although the prints were not truly archival. Neverthe less I had no alternatives and used the process with a machine called the Lightjet from 1995 to 2005 when ink jet prints using pigmented inks achieved a level of quality and light fastness that was more than adequate. I have since upgraded that printer, an Epson 9800 to an Epson 9900 which I use today (May 2019).
The secret is to print directly with primary color dyes bypassing the limitations of chemical coatings that had to turn into dyes when developed (so called "chromogenic" dyes). The advantages were many but two stood out. The contrast (and thus the saturation or brilliance) of the dyes could be adjusted and the color gamut or range of colors surpassed everything else, even, I believe, that of the best printers available today.
The downsides were many: six (6) black and white separation negatives had to be made plus two color correction masks. These had to be made in register (that is the images had to exacactly align with each other) before making printing films called matrices that would carry the dye that would be transferred to the paper to make the print. It was technically very difficult and many photographers who tried it simply gave up.
After seeing the process for the first time in 1977 done by a printer in Boston who I was going to learn from, I realized I would need to build a darkroom dedicated just to this process and then practice in my own space with my own equipment. It took me one year to build the room and it is where these photographs were made. Click on the image to see the entire process.