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Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Nearly Lost Art

Ctein, Apollo 17 at Dawn, Cape Canaveral, 1972 (© 2003 by Ctein)

Speaking of dye transfer prints, as I was in the post "Photography Should Be Hard" below, it is simply beyond me why more collectors are not seeking to add at least one example of a fine dye transfer print to their photography collections. Dye transfer is at the crossroads: this is the historical moment.

Frank McLaughlin, who for many years was in charge of the dye transfer division at Eastman Kodak, famously pronounced that one lifetime is not long enough to master both photography and dye transfer printing. A small number of color photographers, beginning with Eliot Porter and ending, perhaps, with the California photographer Ctein (pronounced "kuh-TINE," and yes, like Cher or Bono, he has only one name), have shown him to be wrong, although they may indeed be the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule.

The fact is that all the master dye transfer printers left on Earth could fit into a medium-sized living room. Only a tiny percentage continue to produce new dye transfer prints for sale. When this ends, it ends; and at that time, collectors will stand no more chance of adding a new dye transfer to their collections than they now stand of adding an original Woodburytype. (Perhaps the single most technically beautiful photographic print I've personally ever seen—and I've seen a great deal—is a particular Woodburytype in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution. Although some efforts have been made to reconstruct the process, for all intents and purposes nobody left on Earth knows truly how they were made.)

Dye transfer is a color printing method of distinct and undenaible beauty. Unlike similarly rare color processes such as Autochrome and Azochrome (silver dye-bleach), dye transfer actually neared something akin to the mainstream at one point, thanks to its particular applicability to color reproduction processes in ink. But it is a horribly difficult and involved process which requires a long and arduous apprenticeship to master. Unlike dye transfers themselves, which for a long time were the most stable and long-lasting color prints known, the art of the dye transfer is fast fading.

I know I'm not primarily a curator or an advisor for collections, but here's a useful exercise in delectation: go to Ctein's web site, take a look at his galleries, and imagine which print you would personally like to own, if you could only own one.

You still can. But not for long.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, I printed Dye Transfers for years (starting in high school). I stopped when Cibachrome came out, feeling that with the proper masking it gave better and truer color than Dyes, as well as probably being more archival.
Now, anyyone can make color prints just as good as the best Dyes using Photoshop and digital inkjet technology, and do it quickly and painlessly. The new K3 pigments may actually be more archival than the Azo dyes used in Dye Transfer.
IMO, nostalgia for the Dye Transfer process is not warranted.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I respect your opinion, but I disagree. The only decent Cibas I ever saw were some masked ones made of Richard Misrach's Desert Cantos stuff. You're right that the best inkjet prints rival or even surpass dyes, and they're vastly easier to make, although still not trivial. Dye will die (if it hasn't already). But that's no reason not to appreciate it.


8:34 AM  
Blogger Will said...

See for some pictures of the only known woodbury hydraulic press. Interesting stuff.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incidentally, the original Technicolor was a 3-color sep process printed using automated dye transfer technique. Development of the technology by Kodak depended on its use by the movie industry.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fully understand just how strong nostalgic reasons can be but why oh why would I want a dye transfer print specifically?

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wasn't Eggleston still having dye transfers done not all that long ago? (Maybe still is?)

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those particularly interested, there was a long interview with Ctein done on a Luminous Landscape DVD, and a 45min segment on the complete dye transfer process in Ctein's lab - check it out:

1:31 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Yes, I think he still is. A small number of art photographers still have their color work made into dyes. In fact, Ctein, who I mentioned in this post, has recently been doing dyes of the color work of Jim Marshall, the rock music photographer.


7:30 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Maybe you don't. I think it's interesting to own examples of different photographic techniques. I own several vintage (c.1910) and contemporary platinums, some tintypes, several Daguerreotypes, etc.


7:38 AM  

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