The Legend Of Dye Transfer Printing, Interrupted 1

April 12th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Misty Morning, Indian Creek, Northern Sierra Nevada, California, 1983 by Philip Hyde. The original color transparency went missing. As a result until 2008, this image had not been printed or published for over 20 years. With the digital age it can again be printed. The new large digital file came from a scan on a Creo CCD Flatbed Scanner of a Philip Hyde original dye transfer print. Most of the other photographs on the Philip Hyde Photography website are made from a drum scan of the original 4X5 color transparency, 4X5, 5X7 or 8X10 black and white negative, or a film duplicate of one of these.

(See the photograph full screen Click Here.)

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



  1. I wonder if other art disciplines are as affected by manufacturing trends as photographers.


  2. Sharon, that is a good question. I am stumped on that one. I would imagine a sculptor using a particular material or a painter that liked certain brushes or…? Doesn’t seem as though it could be as major a dependence, does it? I don’t know.

  3. Richard Wong says:

    This is a fascinating story, David. I wasn’t too familiar with the history of color printing prior to Cibachrome / Ilfochrome. It sort of reminds me of when Kodachrome was gradually phased out. There is a certain look to slides from the 50’s – 70’s that is just classic. I really wished that I had an opportunity to shoot some of that film.

  4. Thank you, Richard. Yes, even drum scans of Kodachrome film, or even Ektachrome for that matter, are much richer in color and range than digital photographs today from even the best cameras.

  5. Tom Johnston says:

    Although dye transfer printing still exists among the truly devoted who have the resources to pursue it, all is not lost to those (above) who wish they had been around to shoot Kodachrome film in the past. Fuji Velvia film is very similar to Kodachrome and, in fact, it probably played a greater part in in the demise of Kodachrome film than digital photography because the standard E6 process is much easier and less expensive than the incredibly complex Kodachrome development process and Velvia looks very much like Kodachrome. Many people don’t realize that Kodachrome is technically a b&w film that is dyed in the development process. Even the home hobbyist can process E6 film easily but only very specially equipped labs could process Kodachrome.

    As a large format photographer working in both color and b&w and who shot Kodachrome for many years, I can say that if someone really wants to experience the lushness of the great transparency films of the past, Velvia film is something to try. On the other hand, there really was a certain look to Kodachrome film that no other capture technology (film or digital) has matched – at least that I have seen. And Kodachrome film was incredibly stable. Unlike Ektachrome film and other slide films of the past, Kodachrome film shot many decades ago can still look like it did the day it was developed because its color came from extremely stable dyes very much like the dyes used in dye transfer printing. In fact, I have slides that my father took in the 1940s that are incredibly sharp and vivid. There’s a nostalgic look to them that is hard to describe. Fortunately, newer E6 films are reportedly very stable as well but only time will really tell.

    But anyone who really wishes to experience the incredible look of slide film should get a film camera and try some Fuji Velvia. The original Fuji Velvia was so popular among landscape photographers that Fuji brought it back due to popular demand after discontinuing it when they brought out Fuji Velvia 100 even though, on paper, the 100 version is actually a better film. It is about 1 1/3 stops faster, is sharper, and has incredible reciprocity characteristics.

    To anyone interested, Wikipedia has a good article about Velvia film. Some of the world’s greatest color photographers use Velvia film exclusively.

    Tom Johnston

  6. Hi Tom, Thank you for this informative comment. I feel like you could have made your comment just as easily on my popular blog post about Velvia film, which you may or may not have seen. It’s on the blog home page under “Most Popular Posts” or here:

    My father, as you may know, was a large format photographer for nearly 60 years. Dad photographed with 4X5, 5X7 and 8X10 film; in black and white, as well as color. I’m confused as to your reference to E-6 film. I thought Dad’s earliest color film was Kodachrome E-3 and E-6. Or is it just the Kodachrome E-3 that is the early film? One or both of these Kodak color films that Dad used extensively are color shifting and fading very badly. Did you know about E-3 fading? Is it that E-6 does not fade?

  7. Linda Paul says:

    David, this is a fascinating post, as accessible for hobbyists as for professionals. You really bring your dad to life in this post.

    Also, I am reminded of my former husband’s ranting and raving in the 1990s when specific paper stocks that he loved were being discontinued. And then came a seriously funny incident in which Kodak went to the trouble of sending Erich Korte in Boise, ID a legal threat over his use of the term “Kortechrome” for a process he had developed for a ‘film-look’ for his videography clients. He did cease and desist but used the incident as fodder for many jokes at the expense of Kodak.

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