The Dye Transfer Process

The Dye Transfer Process is one of the oldest, and most beautiful, color photographic processes. Practiced by a relative handful of photographers, probably less than a hundred in the world, it is a labor and time intensive procedure that yields extraordinary results.

Dye transfer prints are valued by collectors and museums not only for their beauty but the archival qualities of the prints themselves - unlike most color photographs dye transfer prints have great longetivity without fading.

Invented in the 1930's, prior to the mass availability of color film, the process was one of the few methods of making a color photograph for perhaps a decade or so. The printmaking itself is somewhat akin to seriography or offset printing. Making dye transfer prints is an exacting, meticulous procedure, using expensive and somewhat caustic materials. Once other methods of making color photographs became available dye transfer photographs were almost exclusively the realm of critical advertising and documentary work, and fine art photographers.

Originally, 3 black and white negatives were made in a stationery camera using colored filters of Red, Green & Blue, to create a set of "Separation Negatives". Today most practitioners use a 4x5 color transparency for the original and make the separations by contact printing the transparency onto 3 sheets of B/W film with Red, Green & Blue colored light from an enlarger.

The separations have an extremely narrow tolerance for variation in processing and each individual photogapher must calibrate his own system through intensive film testing to arrive at the required density and contrast range for the separations.

The separations are used to expose sheets of Matrix Film, which are, in essence, positive renditions of the Red, Green and Blue separations, inversely corresponding to their primary colors of Cyan, Magenta & Yellow. The Matrices are of the same size as the final print and are composed of a gelatin coating over on an estar base. When processed, the areas that receive more exposure (the darkest areas) "harden" more than the areas of lesser exposure (the highlights). Processing eventually washes away the unhardened gelatin and the resulting effect, if you could look at the processed matrix film in cross-section under magnification, would reveal differential relief between the highlights and the shadow areas, much like hills and valleys.

The matrices are then soaked in organic dyes of Cyan, Magenta & Yellow, and the each matrix absorbs the primary colored dyes into the gelatin coating. The final print is obtained by aligning each matrix over a sheet of high quality specially treated paper using registration pins, and then firmly rolling each matrix onto the paper and allowing the dyes to transfer into the paper. Fine color balance is obtained by subtle removal or retention of each dye prior to transfer, or subsequent "re-dyes".

Dye Transfer prints look like no other type of photograph. There is a richness and depth to each print that is unattainable with any other process. In addition, because of the controls available to the photographer, dye transfer prints can more fully realize the photographer's vision and replicate what he or she "saw and felt at the time of exposure" (to quote Ansel Adams).

In September of 1993 the Eastman Kodak Company, the sole manufacturer of the commercially available products, announced that it was discontinuing production of Dye Transfer materials and all inventories of materials were allocated and sold to existing practitioners at that time. The discontinuation of the Kodak Dye Transfer process marks the end of an era in the art world as well as a crossroads for we few photographers who have enjoyed presenting our work in this special and beautiful form.


Text Copyright 1995, Todd Jagger

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