Camera Arts Magazine


DYE TRANSFER

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.