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Dye Transfer Printing: 1930s Technology in 1978

Digital Simmers In The Background

I remember as I was beginning to photograph the landscape thinking that there would be a great deal of competition and that I needed every advantage, and to me that meant making my own prints. I had been doing that for decades in black and white, but color was another story alltogether. I had no sense of how large a story this would become.

The art and technology of black and white printing was extraordinarily well developed. There was a large number of paper types to choose from including very exotic ones (platinum printing); variable contrast papers or papers with different contrasts, developers of all kinds and so on.

This made room for another kind of artistry. I remember see a “straight” print of Ansel Adams Moonrise, Hernandez where the sky was almost white, and the final print where it was black. All the great names had practiced the art for decades and the results, at there best, were exquisite. They defined a new art form with an origin in the mid 19th century and extending to the present day. Despite the superb capabilities of the best digital printers, the art of the black and white darkroom is alive and well.

However, although I had experimented with black and white printing, my heart was not in it. A georgeous color slide would stimulate almost a physical reaction, but this never happened with a black and white print, until an accidental visit to, of all places, South Station in Boston. There in a glass display case were a number of dye transfer prints and without realizing it, my life changed.

I hunted down other dye transfer prints, first at the Carl Siembab Gallery on Newberry Street in Boston and the feeling became stronger.

However, when I bought my 4" x 5" view camera in 1974 the best and most practical color print was made from color negatives. They were known as EktaColor or “C prints.” They could be very good and were used by fine photographers, but they depended on an exotic chemistry: the chromogenic dye, a clear paper coating that in the development process become a color dye. And of course there were three of these for the three primary colors.

This was a bit of chemical magic but there were two serious shortcomings. The demands on the chemistry limited the range of colors that could be printed, and the complexity of the chemistry left only color balance and brightness controlable. A beautiful print could be made, but most of the control resided with the manufacturer of the paper. But I wanted the print to be what I wanted it to be. I wanted control and what that meant was in effect making three black and white prints with the emulsions of the three primary colors layered together.

The benefit of using dyes that were not part of the printing paper but added as pure dyes at the very end was huge especially in the range of colors that could be printed.

And so began an odessy I could not forsee, for the process of dye transfer was a challenge that defeated many would-be printers.

I don’t ask the question would I have done it if I knew the road ahead for that puts brakes on your life.

This also reminds me of another later even more rewarding adventure with some of the same existential issues: the decision of my wife and I to adopt a four-year-old Russian boy, an adventure that is still happening. And to go along with the two prints above I need to include two pictures: our first picture of Zhenya (Evegeny), now Gregory, and one more recent one. It between was also a struggle, but it was the heart (I called it feiestiness when I saw the first Polaroid) which became determination (and stubborness) and joy Susan, my wife and I, could never have imagined.

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