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The stuff of myth, legend and dreams, dye transfer print making helped bring color to the silver screen in 1922. Hollywood called it Technicolor and it resulted in the best and brightest color that films have ever offered. It was the most widely used motion picture technology until 1952. “Everything else is a pale comparison,” said Brad Miller of Technicolor Labs in Grass Valley, California.
During the 1940s, Kodak released the process for still photography print making. It was the method taught in photography schools and the honored child of famous photographers such as William Eggleston, Ernst Haas, Ctein, Eve Arnold, Beaumont Newhall, Galen Rowell, Cole Weston, John Ward, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde and others. Then in 1994, Kodak abandoned the process and the many photographers, famous or not who were producing the prints. There was outcry across the land, even the world.
I remember my father, fine art landscape photographer Philip Hyde, regularly being mad at Kodak about something. Kodak notoriously favored the mass market and made decisions from a strictly bottom line numbers perspective that often hurt the professional photographer to make the hobbyist happy. Dad used to rail about corporate greed and breaches of trust with those who like him, were working full-time, Kodak’s loyal volume supply buyers. However, nothing compared with the day the music died first in 1991 with discontinuation of the matrix film, then in 1994 with Kodak discontinuing the remaining dye transfer materials. After the dust settled, I don’t think Dad ever recovered completely from the loss of dye transfer print making. He bought up supplies like many others but refused to spend his life’s savings on large stock piles of materials at age 73. As it was, he gave what he had away to another dye transfer printer when he lost his eyesight in 1999-2000.
With these influences, the 1990s marked a change of direction in Dad’s life. After pinching every penny and saving all of them he could, he had invested small sums in the stock market for years. His modest stock portfolio had done so well that by 1994, he had become an avid reader of the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s. He was a highly conservative, buy and hold, blue chip stock investor. It had been working for him quite well and he made far more in the stock market than he ever did in photography.
He was still smarting from his crowning book achievement, Drylands: The Deserts of North America published in 1987, being remaindered, re-published in 1990 and remaindered a second time. He was disappointed because the accountants had taken over book publishing and if books sold more slowly they were remaindered. He seemed down about the influence of corporate decision makers on photography in general and he was not one to get down about anything. He experienced more demand for his time by environmental activist groups and organizations like the Museum of Northern Arizona and Ansel Adams Gallery asking him to do more workshops. The workshops rekindled his photography spark some, but for a few years he went into semi-retirement. Dye transfer and desert landscapes were the two reasons Dad converted to color in a long, gradual process during the decade of the 1970s. More on that in another blog post and in my book. He did in time begin printing again in earnest. He made beautiful color Cibachrome prints, but it was never the same as dye transfer print making. What was it about this elusive process that captured the minds of famous photographers and darkroom techies alike?
One of the photographers famous for his dye transfer prints is Ctein, one of a few still making dye transfer prints today. He wrote on his website:
Dye transfer prints are simply without peer. They have a richness, depth, and fidelity unmatched by any other kind of photographic print. They can show extraordinary subtlety of tone and hue, combined with a brightness range of 500:1 from blackest black to whitest white. After 70 years, dye transfer printing has become a nearly-lost art…today only a few dozen people in the entire world still make dye transfer prints… Dye transfer printing is very time-consuming and expensive. Making the first 16″ x 20″ dye print from a negative costs me over $100 in materials and several days’ time. Dye transfer printing also demands extraordinary skill, understanding, and good artistic judgement… In 1991 Kodak discontinued a special film called Pan Matrix Film which I need to make prints directly from color negatives. In 1994 Kodak abruptly and without warning ceased production of Matrix Film (used for printing from separations) and all other dye transfer materials… As an artist, I couldn’t stand the idea of spending the rest of my life thinking, “Gee that’s a pretty nice print… it would have been so much lovelier as a dye transfer.” I mortgaged myself to the hilt and packed a large amount of this unique film in a deep freeze… I stockpiled enough chemicals, dye and paper to allow me to continue printing. I went deeply in debt, but I can continue creating my art for at least several more years. Those few of us still making dye transfer prints survive on such hoarded supplies. Kodak’s decision to kill dye transfer constitutes an artistic loss of the highest order.
Landscape photographer Charles Cramer described his experience on his website:
When I started making color prints in the late 70s, things were fairly primitive, but there was one process with a mythical reputation that offered tremendous control—dye transfer. I had no idea how all-consuming making dye transfer prints would be. To create one print required the precise exposure and development of approximately twelve sheets of film. The colors are literally disassembled into B&W, and then reassembled in a process akin to silk-screening. With all the steps involved, it offered tremendous control—but also the possibility for things to go terribly wrong. I labored mightily for more than fifteen years with dye transfer. When all the planets aligned, a beautiful print could emerge. But you didn’t know how it would look until the final step of “rolling” out a print. I started making dye transfer prints in 1981. In 1994, Kodak, the only supplier of dye transfer materials, announced they had ceased production. Any remaining inventory was divided up amongst existing customers. I scraped together as much as I could afford to get a decent stockpile… By the time I started in dye transfer, most everyone else had quit. The biggest obstacle was getting good information. There was very little in the literature, and I tried to collect everything I could. There are so many steps to making a print—so many variables— combined with the fact that there’s no feedback until you finally make the print, that it’s hard to isolate exactly what does what.
Charles Cramer taught dye transfer printing for the Ansel Adams Gallery Workshops starting in 1987. He teaches at the Ansel Adams Gallery to this day. Upcoming blog posts will describe how Philip Hyde learned dye transfer printing and will include Philip Hyde’s description of the process, as well as my memories of him singing along to his big band jazz records as he printed.
CONTINUED IN THE BLOG POST, “The Legend of Dye Transfer Printing, Interrupted 2“