The last part is the most important, but I've included the full text for those interested in the technical details.
A NEW OPTIMISM
Mention “dye transfer” to most anyone in the publishing industry and they’ll tell you it’s obsolete. Ask commercial printers about it and they’ll declare it passé. Raise the subject with a group of fine-art photographers and printers—even Hollywood filmmakers—and you’re likely to get a different opinion.
At least that was the conclusion at an autumn weekend retreat in Vermont hosted by fine art photographer Luke Powell. Over 30 past and present dye printers and photographers from all over North America, Germany and Australia took Powell up on his invitation. A typical conversation-starter was, “Where were you when you heard…?” The question concerned Kodak’s abrupt decision in 1993 to pull the plug on the manufacture of dye transfer products, leaving some 500 photographers and technicians without a source of the materials they depended on for their livelihood.
That decision is still keenly felt among practitioners. The intensity of their response is remarkable, even more so considering the investment dye transfer requires—and not just in terms of money. The process, also known as dye imbibition, starts by creating tricolor separation negatives from a transparency. Exposing each negative onto a specially-coated film creates three bas-relief images called matrices, the degree of relief proportional to the exposure they receive. The matrices are soaked in complementary acidic dye baths and rolled in register onto special photographic paper secured to a pin-register board. The pH difference between the dye and the paper aids the transfer of the dye. It’s a painstaking process that takes years to master.
So why, in this age of instant gratification, would anyone cling to this technology? For one thing, it gives enormous control over color density and balance. And it yields an archival print of spectacular richness and longevity. Bob Pace, a respected authority on color print processes for two generations of photography professionals, is a fervent believer: “I have made over 25,000 dye transfer prints and nothing I have seen in all this time has shaken my feelings about this process.” And Kodak’s dye transfer guru Frank McLaughlin, who taught the process over the phone to generations of image-makers until his retirement in 1986, states simply, “The dye transfer product is the most manageable, most color-pure, most true-to-life photographic product ever invented.
In The Wake of Dye Transfer’s Demise
In 1993 National Public Radio (NPR) aired a pivotal piece by Rachel Maurer reporting on Kodak’s decision and its impact on dye transfer practitioners. Her follow-up article, “The Demise of Dye Transfer”, published in View Camera magazine, chronicled the ways in which photographers and others responded to the news. Some went into debt to purchase Kodak’s remaining supplies, either to finish projects or to stockpile for future use. Others sought new technologies.
And then there was Dr. Jay Paterson, a psychologist and dye transfer aficionado, who now introduces himself as “the fellow from Houston who was driving around a few years ago, heard the NPR piece on my car radio, and got this idea to see what I could do.” That idea soon germinated into active research and development of new materials. With cooperation from Kodak, Paterson began to achieve good results, gaining attention among dye folks.
In the meantime, John Wawrzonek, a high-end photographic printer, saw digital technology as the future. As possible alternatives to dye transfer, he began exploring UltraStable™, a modern tricolor process, and EverColor™ Pigment Transfer, a four-color separation process based on technology used in the graphic arts industry. Others, however, scoffed at the output. Maurer’s article quoted photographer Dennis Ivy’s opinion that an EverColor print “looked like a plastic place-mat.”
Catching Up on Dye Transfer Developments
The Vermont weekend was at first glance a simple gathering of like-minded people. Dye transfer photographer Ctein traveled from San Francisco simply because “we’ve always been a close-knit community, but most of us have never met face-to-face. This is our grand opportunity.” Even more, it was a chance for people to check out the latest in dye transfer product development. Dr. Paterson, for example, related that he had linked up with chemist John DaSilva of Kilborn Photo Products, Inc., in Iowa, to develop materials. Paterson has formed a company in Houston called Dye Transfer Corporation, or DTC. Matrix film and three types of paper have been tested and are now commercially available. The razor-edge sharpness needed for highly technical images is not where Paterson would like it to be, but he expects to be able to correct that with a thinner base “for those of you who wouldn’t mind some polyethylene in the product.” DTC has also released dyes for testing. “We looked at about 50 yellows and 20 cyans and magentas to arrive at where we are,” Paterson states, noting that the dyes he finally selected are similar to Kodak’s but “a bit on the warmer side.”
Do the materials do the job? “Absolutely,” affirms Nino Mondhe of Hamburg, Germany, who owns one of the few remaining dye transfer labs in Europe and remains committed to the process. He’s tested Paterson’s film and papers extensively and is pleased. “The film is good. It’s slightly slower than the Kodak and a hair thinner, but it works very well. The paper is also good.”
Two of Paterson’s ongoing projects are designed to make dye transfer viable for a larger population. One is to produce a less-costly proofing paper by changing to a more common base, but with the same receiver sheet on top to ensure consistency between the final print and the proof. Another is to marry dye transfer with digital imagery. “We want to be able to scan a transparency and produce intermediate output on matrix film or something similar, or expose matrix film directly from a digital file. We’re working on a machine that can do that in perfect registration up to 30 X 40.”
Already blending digital technology with dye printing is inventor Jim Browning, president of Digital Mask, a New Hampshire color photographic print house. In 1993 he began to develop his own materials so he could continue doing dye transfer and still compete commercially with less expensive processes such as Iris™. Browning has invented his own formulations as well as a small-scale sheet coater, all of which he intends to keep in the public domain. Browning claims he can “go from start to finish in three hours” with a machine he built using tricolor lasers that doubles as a scanner and film recorder. “I use the RGB lasers to produce a high-quality scan. Then I use Live Picture™, an application that allows selective modification of the image. I take that file and, using the laser, record each image one at a time in register on 8 X 10 T-Max™ film, then develop them all at once.” Explaining his decision to go digital, Browning states, “You can’t just dodge-and-burn with dye transfer; you have to use masking. Digital technology makes that more practical. Also people often start with digital files today. So this approach makes it possible for me to serve the markets of both digital artists and fine-art photographers.”
Checking Out the Alternatives
The Vermont gathering also gave people a chance to learn how newer technologies are faring and to inspect images offered by printers like Wawrzonek. Ultrastable never did become one of his tools, as it turned out. “Getting consistent results was hard,” he explains, “and depended on things like the pH of the water. By the time we finally learned to live with that, they’d changed the materials to fix the problem.” Then he took a second look at EverColor, decided its colors were better than Ultrastable’s, and changed his focus. When EverColor asked him to run their operation, they merged with Wawrzonek, renaming the company EverColor Fine Art and relocating it to Worcester, Massachusetts.
Wawrzonek’s primary tool is Luminage™, a process that combines tricolor laser exposure using Cymbolic Sciences’ LightJet 5000™ image-setter with Color Savvy’s color management system and FujiColor™ paper for longevity. Frank McLaughlin, in “From Daguerreotype to Digital,” writes that Luminage is “perhaps the first successful marriage of the new technologies. The result is large format (50” X 50”) printing with very high resolution and color quality combined with predictable color.”
As Wawrzonek looks to the future, he sees a merger of inkjet technology and pigments, which can have higher color quality and greater longevity than dyes. He’s encouraged by preliminary announcements of next-generation piezoelectric inkjet printers from Epson-Seiko, Calcomp and others promising improvements in resolution, color quality, longevity and ability to print on a range of surfaces. While he is still dissatisfied with the quality of inkjet images, he believes it’s just a matter of time before “you can do anything with inkjet that you’d want to do with dye transfer.”
Wawrzonek also believes the development of digital imaging is at a high level that will continue to improve. For one thing, he says, “Color management software has brought us to a place where we don’t have to commit to the printer at the time of the scan; we convert the file to the printer of choice just before going to print.” Because he still believes dye transfer has the edge when it comes to color range and intensity, Wawrzonek intends to explore new ways to marry dye and digital. He’d like to be able to give photographers the opportunity, for example, “to bring us the transparency, have us make the separation negatives for them digitally, create the matrices and roll their own prints.” He’s also been considering the possibility of offering a matrix service, using an image-setter to expose the matrices directly from a digital file. The downside, he explains, is that it becomes more expensive to replace worn matrices. “When you have separation negatives, you can go back any time and make another set of matrices. If you’ve gotten your matrices from a matrix service and they wear out, you have to go back to the image-setter.”
The Response: Wait and See
What lies ahead for practitioners of dye transfer and other forms of fine art photographic printing? A wait-and-see attitude predominates. Optimism for Dr. Paterson’s products is tempered by fresh memories of being stranded once before by a sole source. Only Jim Browning—who has taken product sourcing into his own hands—is confident he can continue with dye transfer as long as he chooses. Image-makers are grappling with all the factors likely to influence dye transfer’s ultimate survival: practicality, attitudes towards artisanship, marketability, marriage to digital technology, and acceptability of alternatives.
Practicality is a consideration of time and expense. Noted portrait photographer David La Claire, for example, who began making dye portraits with his father 47 years ago, has decided with his daughter not to continue the dye business into a third generation for practical reasons. Others have made the decision to make prints that aren’t quite as good, but expect to sell more because “I don’t have to spend my entire life printing.” And in terms of cost, some feel Paterson’s dye transfer materials are out of their range. Yet Jim Browning reports that few have expressed interest in his do-it-yourself solutions.
Looking ahead to current and future generations, many wonder if dye transfer will die along with other painstaking artisanal processes. Browning, however, believes the process is no more intimidating than other artistic media and warns, “If you end up using digital to save time, you get garbage.” Andy Cross, an Australian dye printer, agrees the practice will continue: “If you can imagine that in 50 years people will still be interested in learning how to paint or sculpt, which are much more arduous, then chances are people will still be interested in learning dye transfer.”
Survival may also depend on how much dye transfer prints are valued in the marketplace. Some feel it’s a matter of making buyers aware of the differences so they can come to appreciate them. Others maintain that collectors will always see inherent value in the prints because dye transfer is a rare, classic process. And many are heartened by news of the resurgence of Technicolor™, the cinematic version of dye transfer (see related story), hoping the fine art market will benefit as public awareness grows. On the other hand, many feel that buyers don’t care about technology, but will simply buy what they like. John Wawrzonek states, “Dye transfer doesn’t make or break most images. Anyone who looks only at dye transfer will likely miss many of the most important developments in fine art printing.”
For many, the greatest hope lies in the marriage of dye transfer and digital technology, permitting a savings of time and expense. Luke Powell predicts, “If somebody can provide at a reasonable cost a set of matrices from a digital scan then a lot of people can set up. It’s cheap and easy to do. I can easily imagine a thousand people across the U.S. rolling their own prints.”
Regardless of all other factors, the future of dye transfer may ultimately depend on the ability of other technologies to clear the hurdle of output quality. Expectations differ sharply about whether digital can ever match dye transfer—or at least come acceptably close—in the end result. Gerald Storey, a Sacramento dye printer and photographer, comments, “I think digital printing will develop in speed and affordability. But its robotic sharpness is disconcerting—the world just isn’t that sharp.” Guy Stricherz, owner of the CVI Laboratory in New York City, states unequivocally that he will do dye transfer or no color at all, explaining, “Classic continuous tone optical mechanical printing is our specialty. For color, that means dye transfer—its intrinsic beauty and luminosity are unsurpassed.”
Others, like Powell, are more amenable to digital alternatives. He sees Luminage as a way to produce “an image of museum quality that will last longer than your grandchildren, available for $200-$500 instead of $1000.” Fine-art photographer Jim Wallace, who admits he came to Vermont to shop around, is also encouraged: “Computers give us the resolution we need and the ability to manipulate at least as much as dye transfer if not more, but we haven’t had decent output. Now John Wawrzonek—first with EverColor, then with Luminage—is closing the gap.”
As fine-art photography professionals wait for that gap to narrow, where will they turn in the meantime? Richard Jackson of Flagstaff, Arizona, is a fine-art printer who has carried his knowledge of dye transfer into the realm of Ilfochrome™ with stunning results. After examining his portfolio, more than a few people now see Ilfochrome as a worthy alternative, Wallace and Storey among them. “I’d never considered it before, but then I saw Richard’s prints—absolutely beautiful,” raves Wallace.
The Bottom Line
The question for dye transfer printers is whether or not they will choose to see themselves in a more generic light: as creators of fine art prints who take advantage of whatever tools, technology and materials exist. But the bottom line—for them as well as for those who buy their work—remains the uncompromised quality of the image. Frank McLaughlin sums it up best as he reflects on the Vermont gathering: “Museums, image collectors, designers, archivists—anyone who can see the difference between good and poor imagery—should care what happens here. In today’s world of screaming TV advertising, poor-quality periodical publication and generally deteriorating visual taste, well-made images of pleasing color have become like pearls to the eyes of those who have learned to see.”
SIDEBAR: The Re-Emergence of Technicolor™
Dye transfer printers are elated at recent indications that Technicolor—the cinematic version of dye transfer—is returning to the big screen. The re-release of Giant in 1996, the first American-printed Technicolor feature film in 21 years, has heightened interest in its revival within the film industry.
Technicolor is also called IB printing (for “imbibition”, after the photographic term “dye imbibition”). Technicolor, Inc., ended IB printing in the U.S. in 1974. Technicolor London closed its operation in 1977, but not until they’d made five IB prints of Star Wars for George Lucas.
The restoration of the Star Wars trilogy brought IB printing back to the forefront. According to Leon Briggs, who worked with Lucasfilm on the restoration for over two years, the original negatives had faded only 5 - 15%, well within normal range. But he explained that George Lucas wanted the original color in the restored version. Lucasfilms technicians were able to accomplish this goal for Star Wars, but only because they had an IB print to use for color reference.