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Dye Transfer Matrices

The three matrices ready for printing.


Let Others Do It?

Before I purchased my view camera in 1974 I was already familiar with the challenges of color printing. There was simply no good answer.

Black and white printers had great control over their images and the best photographers took full advantage of it. The example that sticks in my mind is Ansel Adams’s Moon Rise, Herdandez. I had seen a college lecture about the image and learned that the very dark sky, was in fact nearly white without considerable manipulation. And that was the beginning. Paper choice, developers, processing, extensive burning and dodging, masking, etc. could make the image a work of art.

But a color print is like three black and white prints rolled into one. The three colors are the subractive primaries: cyan, magenta and yellow where cyan dye (or pigment) absorbs red light, magenta absorbs green and yellow absorbs blue giving control (in theory) over all the color. However, there are a limitations: 1. The colors are not pure; 2. Saturation and contrast are built into the original film and the printing paper you are left with brightness and color balance. It is hard to convey how serious these limiataions are, but having made thousands of prints where I have complete control I know how drastic the effect on the print can be, and how even subtle changes are important. And thus, why color photography was not consided an art form. However, there were two processes that offered solutions.

Color carbro is a pigment transfer proccess that can give stunning results but is involved that photography becomes more printing than photography. There are modern versions which we experimented with but which were not practical at the time. The options we tried are discussed below, but skipping ahead to 2020, the digital printers using pigmented inks are so good that, from my perspective, nothing else is worth considering.

However, in 1978 when I was first prepared to print there was an option, dye transfer printing, that I used for 19 years until Eastman Kodak discontinued making the materials. Dye transfer and Technical Motion Pictures are essentially the same process and these are discussed below or in the references.

The whole story of my involvement with color printing includes extensive experience with two processes (UltraStable Permanet Color Prints and EverColor pigment transfer prints). I discuss our experiences below. Suffice to say, there was a ten year gap after our experiments before pigmented ink jet prints were good enough for me to begin printing again. I have examples of these process. The fall back process that tided me over I also discuss below. But first, back to 1978 and dye transfer.


Rolling the cyan matrix. Note the full color image to the left side.

Dye Transfer Prints

These are now rare prints with only a few available.
More cannot be made.

A documentary photograph is not usually intimately dependant on how it is printed. A fine art landscape image is. Although this opinion is not shared by all photographers I believe it is evident in my prints.

Having seen in the early 1970s examples and exhibits of dye transfer prints and seeing the results of other processes (C-prints, Cibachrome, direct positive prints) I concluded that I had to make my own dye transfer prints.

I began photographing in 1974 and in 1978 decided it was time to begin printing. I watched Bill Butler, an expert printer, make a dye transfer print. However, it was clear it was a complex process (ultiately I made 11 black and white sheets of film before adding dyes) and often photographers failed when they tried to make “dyes.” Since a critical part of the process was temperature control and registration I decided to build my own lab especially for makeing dye transfer prints.

This involved a rocker table for dying matrices, an electronic temperature controller for developing separation negatives and matrices, a large vacuum frame for holding matrices in register, a special negative carrier for the enlarger to keep separations in register, and an enlarger firmly anchored (in my case to the major support beams of my home). It took me a year and the help of a professional machinist.

Show below are a series of images from a slide show we made in my lab of me making a dye transfer print.

Eliot Porter, when he meade his own prints stayed with relatively small 16" x 20" prints. Because the details of texture were important to me I began with 20" x 24" prints and later added 32" x 40" prints, something very rare outside of professional labs. In fact, as dye transfer was being phased out, we were contracted to finish an order for 32" x 40" Eliot Porter prints.

Dye transfer is a so-called “dye imbibation” process and was the same techology used for Technicolor movies. Because the actual filming was onto three black and while negatives it makes possible the restoration of vintage films such as "Gone with the Windæ," "The Wizard of Oz" and other films from the 1930s although the dyes in the old prints retained their brilliant color much longer than later color negative films.

However, Technicolor was expensive and Kodak switched to color negatives in the early 1950s which have all faded.

Kodak continued to make materials for dye transfer printing until the early 1990s when digital technology made it obsolete. My associate, Michael Conrad, and I made dyes from 1978 to 1995 and then began an odessy that lasted for ten years to find a replacment process.

The Artistry Of Black & White ~ In Three Colors

Almost Impossible.

I remember the day, shortly I had started carrying a view camera around when I realized how competitive landscape photography would be, and that I needed every possible advantage. Clearly one was to make my own prints.

I already knew the limitations of Ektacolor (usually called “C-prints”) and Cibachrome and other processes and they all felt inadequate because none let you inside the chemistry so you could mess with what was happening. Printing color is difficult so most processes essentially locke you out. The contrast and color saturation are built in. You could control brightness and color balance, but this was like telling a painter there would be no pastels or brilliant reds.

There are two reasons for this. To make a paper that when exposed to light and developed requires dyes that are invisible until processed. They are called “chromogenic dyes” for the olor is created during processing. This has two problems. The chemicals are difficult to create and the processing is difficult to modify to change, for example, the saturation of a color. Additionally the dyes are usually more suscepetable to fading. The end result is that (prior to digital printers), the print was a compromise. So along comes dye transfer where the three primary colors and controlled with three sets of black and white negatives and the color is added from pure dyes at the end. The result is beautiful prints (if done properly), but great complexity.

I had seen a couple of examples of dye transfer prints and knew that spectacular prints were possible. However, the process needed to be disassembled to get at the chemical and optical controls. Oddly enough, a process that could do this was invented in the 1930s and used to make movies with the trade-name Technicolor (the inventors were graduates, as was I, of MIT).

Technicolor was a dye transfer process that Kodak, with the help of outside technicians converted for use with still images. The process has the advantage that red, green and blue are processed separately and contrast and saturation can be controlled. However...

There is no such thing as a “dye transfer printer” that you can buy for any price nor is there an instruction manual. The nearest at the time was a Kodak publication E-80 that gave you a few ideas.

I found someone in Boston* making dye transfer prints, watched one being made (this was supposed to be one of a series of lessons) and said goodby. Learning to do this had to be at my own pace and I had to build a lab and equipment myself that would made working as reliable and simple as possible. I spent 1978 building my lab and made my first prints.

It was very easy to overdo color which I often did, but the best of the prints are beyond the color range of the best digital printers.

For further explanation the Wikipedia article “Dye Transfer Printing” is a good reference or just click below and watch me make a print in my own lab.

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.

*There is a small irony here. The dye transfer printer, Bill Butler, had his lab in Boston on Huntington Avenue in what was known as the Old Piano Factory, which, it turns out was where my Mason & Hamlin BB grand piano was made in 1917.

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.

To Dye Transfer Gallery

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