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. Nothing else comes close to the magnificence of a dye transfer print.
Dye transfers are to ordinary darkroom color prints as, well, a fine stereo system is to a $10 transistor radio. Dye transfer prints have incomparable beauty, extraordinary fidelity, and unusual longevity. They offer the artist an exceptional degree of aesthetic control. They offer the viewer a visual richness and depth which cannot be found in ordinary prints.
After 70 years, dye transfer printing has become a nearly-lost art.
When museums and collectors wanted the absolute finest in color printing, they called for dye transfer. Today, only a handful of people in the entire world still make dye transfer prints, but dye transfer printing's always been a very exclusive club!
Why? First, dye transfer printing is very time-consuming and expensive. Making the first 16" x 20" dye print from a negative would cost me over $100 in materials and several days' time, even more when printing from slides or digital files. Dye transfer printing also demands extraordinary skill, understanding, and good artistic judgement. Almost anyone could learn it; terribly few became any good at it.
Second, dye transfer printing requires special materials which were made only by the Eastman Kodak Company. In 1991 Kodak discontinued a special film called Pan Matrix Film which I needed 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.
How is it that I still made dye transfer prints up until 2014? When Kodak stopped making Pan Matrix Film I faced with the possibility of never making another color-negative dye transfer print. 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." (Remember, digital printing was only "okay" back then.) I mortgaged myself to the hilt and packed a large amount of this unique film in a deep freeze. When Kodak ended all production, I stockpiled enough chemicals, dye and paper to allow me to continue printing. I went deeply in debt from this, but I was able to continue creating my art for twenty more years.
Those few 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.
Dye transfer is very different from other modern color print processes. No other process gives you so many ways to control the look of the final print. That is what makes dye transfer so hard, and it is also what makes dye transfer print so magnificent. Dye transfer provides the photographic artist with the tools to express extraordinary subtleties and nuances. Color prints can be fine-tuned to convey exactly what the artist intended. In dye transfer printing, rarely is the printer limited by the process; dye transfer allows so much control that it is impossible to completely master all its possibilities.
Dye transfer dyes are much closer to 'ideal' than other photographic dyes. The colors are purer. For example, the yellow dye in a dye transfer print is very clean, while ordinary color prints have an orangish yellow which muddies greens and masks subtle variations in reds and oranges. A dye transfer print has better and more accurate color than any other color print. A dye print can have a brightness range of 500:1 or more; no other print, black-and-white or color, matches that.
The dyes in a dye transfer print are very stable. Some conventional color prints now have a light stability better than dye transfer, but they also deteriorate in the dark. Unless you keep the majority of your work on lighted display at all times, dark fading or staining will prove more damaging than light fading. A dye transfer print has a dark-life expectancy, at room temperature and humidity, of over 300 years-- much better than even Ilfochrome. Dye transfers are printed on a double-weight fibre-base paper stock which is known to be stable and archival.
Dye transfer printing resembles the mechanical printing process that magazines use to make color pictures. A color printing press uses four separate printing plates, one each for the three primaries (magenta, yellow, cyan) and one for black. Each plate is engraved with a halftone image for one of the colors, which is coated with a thin layer of oil-based ink. The four plates then transfer their ink to the surface of a sheet of blank white paper to make the color pictures. The final picture is not 'created' chemically in the paper; it is assembled on its surface from four separate screened color images.
Dye transfer uses three continuous-tone sheet film plates called matrices. The matrices are soaked in water-based cyan, magenta and yellow dyes. The matrices are rinsed clean of excess dye and squeegeed against a sheet of gelatin-coated paper, much like regular photographic paper but without the silver compounds. The gelatin absorbs the dye from the matrix. The result is a continuous-tone dye image on paper.
The details are a bit more involved...
First, I need to separate out each of the individual color images that comprise a color negative. I use red, green and blue filters to enlarge the individual color negative images onto three sheets of Pan Matrix Film.
Pan Matrix Film is a special film that I can process to produce a "relief image": after I develop and wash the film, the thickness of gelatin left on the film base is proportional to the amount of light that hit the film.
From here on, I can work by ordinary room light. I soak the matrices in "acid-fixing" dyes. A given thickness of matrix gelatin emulsion will absorb just so much acid-fixing dye out of the dye bath. That's what makes dye transfer possible. The thickness of the matrix relief image is proportional to the original exposure, so the amount of dye carried by the matrix is also proportional. More light means more gelatin, which means more dye in the print.
The red-, green- and blue-exposed matrices go into cyan, magenta and yellow dye baths, respectively. I can adjust the contrast of each dye image by changing the acidity of that dye bath. I have sets of different contrast dyes, much as black-and-white printers have different grades of paper. Sometimes, I even use different contrasts for the different matrices to correct for some unusual color balance problem, like aerial photographs that are too blue in the shadows.
The matrices absorb all the dye they can after soaking for 5 to 10 minutes. I rinse each matrix in 1% acetic acid to remove the excess dye from the surface; because the dyes are fixed (held in place) by acid, they don't wash out. Incidentally, the large amounts of dilute acetic acid used in the process leave the prints smelling faintly of vinegar for months-to-years after printing. Don't worry; it's normal.
Now the matrix is ready for printing. I take the first dyed matrix and squeegee it emulsion-down onto a sheet of the dye transfer receiving paper. The dye molecules migrate from the matrix to the paper. After five minutes, I peel off the matrix; I now have a primary color dye image on the receiving paper and there will be almost no dye left in the matrix. I wash the matrix in hot water, after which I can either hang it up to dry or redye it for another print. I repeat the transfer process for each of the three matrices. When I am all done I have a full color dye transfer print.
But it probably won't be right. That first print will be too light or dark, too contrasty or flat, and/or off-color. The shadows may not have the right amount of detail, or the highlights may need a little more sparkle. Or etc., etc.
Dye transfer printing provides me with a daunting number of ways to control the appearance of the print. I can use masks when making the matrices to adjust the color balance, color rendition and tone scale of the print. I can control the density and contrast of each matrix individually during exposure and processing. I can adjust the acidity of the dye baths to change the image contrast and density (which looks different from changing the matrix contrast).
I can lighten or darken an image by changing the composition of the acid rinse baths, and I can add dye selectively to shadows or remove it from only the highlights. I can make additional transfers from each matrix to fine-tune the image. I can adjust each primary color image completely independently of the others, and I can use any combination of these effects. Learning how to judge what corrections will take me from a first print to that perfect final one is what being a master printer is all about.
Finally, I must do all of this with meticulous technique:
It's no wonder that few printers ever made dye transfer prints. But the results are worth all the effort and years of acquired skills.
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