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Dye Transfer Discontinued

A Ten Year Odyessy

Although I began using dye transfer in 1978, its development happened in the 1930s along with that of the Technicolor motion picture process. Both were “dye imbibation” processes. Kodak made materials for the Technicolor process (except for the dyes) and developed its own version for the graphic arts industry. This process was adopted by photographers because it was the only way to control color contrast and saturation. A large part of its appeal was the extreme color gamut the process offered and I believe it has never been matched.

It is an open question whether digital prints can deliver the color saturation of dye transfer. Having severl hundred dye transfer prints, including our reference prints for comparison and being skilled in each, I am nevertheless withholding final opinion until I have more experience with my digital printer. However, as I have rescanned and reprinted older images I am pleasantly surprised by what my new printer can do. Colors that I presumed would be out of gamut print just fine aided by software that facilitates tuning of individual colors.

The primary use of dye transfer was in the advertising industry where it was a primitive version of Photoshop. The ability to minipulate images by combining transfers from different matrices was key, along with the abaility to retouch the prints by bleaching out color and then painting something back in with the samre dyes used to make the original print. This had the advantage of eliminating color errors when the final print was copied to make half-tone negatives for offset printing.

Fine art photographers accounted for about 10% of the dye transfer market and we were constantly afraid that Kodak would discontinue the process as the advertising work was taken over by early digital processes. I made several trips to Rochester either to meet with Frank McLaughlin, the Kodak guru of dye transfer or to meet with Kodak marketing executives who assured me that dye transfer would not be discontinued.

However, I believe that something happened that revealed that one or more of the chemicals used in the process had environmental issues and that Kodak was, not surprisingly, unwilling to invest in keeping the process going. (Ibelieve it was cadium in the yellow dye or in the paper conditioner.) Hence in 1993 Kodak informed us that the process was discontinued but that we could make a final purchase of materials. We invested about $10,000 in paper and dye so we could continue printing images for which we already had printing matrices. Then the fun began, finding a replacement for dye transfer. I remember saying to my associate, Michael Conrad, that I would like to find a process “almost impossible” to do so that we would be the only ones doing it. I almost got my wish as we began several years of experiments an adventure I could not have forseen. We did not know where to turn for I would not consider going backwards to the old processes and so sacrificing quality. However, one thing was clear and that was we had to go digital.

The following would take a book to recount so what follows is a synopsis and that will have to do for now. But there was a wall to climb first.

Digital means one of two very different things: 1) Shooting with a digital camera and so having a digital file to work with; 2) Having decades of images on film which had to be digitized with no loss of quality. This was odyessy number one.

Today, many photographers print their own work. Digital cameras and printers combined with color management make good prints a order of magnitude or two easier. However pushing quality to the limit is still worth maximum effort although that effort is very different today than in 1978. From 1993 to 2005 on I was continuously involved in using, trying to make work, evaluating or being bankrupted by one process after another, all a result of two things: trying to make, within reason, the best print possible and being surprised and battered by rapidly changing technologies. with two different processes but that is a story for another section.

One of the most important issues with the various processes was fading either in the dark or when exposed to light. The issues of fading is discussed below.

Adventures In Color Printing

Try And Try Again

The following is a list of printing processes we used with varying degrees of success:

1. Dye Transfer (18 years-successful, click to see a print being made)

Dye transfer gave the flexibility of black and white by splitting the process up into the three primary colors with negatives for each color so each could be manipulated separately. Additionally, the process was: masking; separation negatives (with a separate set just for highlights

2. UltraStable Permanent Color Prints (two years-unsuccessful)

3. EverColor Prints (5 years-ultimately unsuccessful)

4. LightJet chromogenic prints (12 years-qualified success)

5. Chromogenic prints using half-tone separations (unsuccessful)

6. Polaroid Permanent Color Prints (unsuccessful)

7. Epson Digital Prints (successful 2005, on-going)

Many parmeters go into the choice: investment, learning curve, color quality, time to make a print, light fastness, and much more. A process can require investment, construction and be difficult to do yet be successful. Dye transfer was such a process. Despite having been invented in the 1930s (it is the same technology as that used in Technicolor movies), in 1978 it was the only choice for delivering superb color with control. It merited spending one year building a lab specifically designed for the process.

EverColor made many images beautifully but put flaws in others. Then Agfa settled the issue by getting out of the business that produced the materials.

The LightJet exposed chromogenic paper (same stuff you got in drugstores) with lasers. Color quality was excellent, but any paper relying on chemicals turning into colored dyes seemed bound to fail longevity tests. All successful processes (including Kodachrome) added the color seperately in the form of dyes or pigments that were not light sensitive.

At this time (2020) piezoelectric nozzles by the thousands crammed into a print head and squirting a few picoleiters of pigmented inks onto almost any kind of substrate has won out. Three picolieters is a small drop made smaller by adding lighter versions of the same color ink. Color limitations of pigments are overcome by adding inks off the tri-color scale. Dye transfer printed with cyan, magenta and yellow dyes, the standard subtractive primaries. My Epson printer uses 10 colors: cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, yellow, black, light black, light light black, orange and green, these later two overcoming limitations in other colors and so to expand the color gamut.

And the latest is to print on aluminum. I haven‘t gone there yet.

An outdated, but nevertheless very valuable overview of the general issue of the lightfastness plus specific information on several is available from Wilhelm Imaging Research.The various processes will be discussed in greater detail if time permits.

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