THE LAST DYE TRANSFER PRINTER IN CAPTIVITY
THE LAST DYE TRANSFER PRINTER IN CAPTIVITY
Sean O’Hagan’s Observer (19/11/17) profile of the photographer William Eggleston and, further, recalling reviews of the National Portrait Gallery’s recent exibition of Eggleston’s work and the various references to his use of the dye transfer color printing process set me wondering: am I the last dye transfer technician in captivity who has never himself been an artist/photographer? [As all of the following refers to work undertaken in America I will use the transatlantic spelling of color.]
In January 1962 I started work at the Authenticolor Photographic Laboratory located on New York’s Lexington Avenue where I was introduced to and instructed in the dye transfer process. Used in those days almost entirely for commercial purposes, dye transfer was a color reproduction system based on the same principle as Technicolor motion picture film. Except in the hands of a small dedicated band of artist/photographers the process no longer exists as the Eastman Kodak Company that manufactured the materials for the process ceased making them in 1994. It was in my time – when the lab’s primary clients were advertising agencies – a three-step operation that usually began with a 35mm color transparency. From this, in a dry darkroom process, a set of negatives were struck. From these, in a wet darkroom process, a set of three matrices were produced, each with a gelatin emulsion. The matrices, when developed, were each immersed in separate trays of magenta, cyan and yellow dye set on a gently rocking shelf. The matrices were then rinsed in a mild acid solution and rolled out consecutively on a sheet of photographic printing paper that had been soaked in an alkaline bath. Each matrix had a set of perforations that corresponded with a row of metal register pins on the near-edge of a thick glass rolling plate. When the dye from the three matrices was fully transfered the print was dried in a roller drum. Adjustments could be made at every step of the process. Highlight and shadow maskes were produced for the negatives; chemicals could be added in the developing of the matrices; and the balance and intensity of the colors could be heightened or lessened by the addition of acid or ammonia to the dyes. All in all, it was a highly sophisticated process requiring a good deal of skill at each step. It was also very expensive. At the time I worked in the labs – over 50 years ago – one custom dye transfer print cost $150. The finished product was primarily used to strike printers’ plates for high-prestige glossy magazine advertisements. Cheaper prints were sometimes produced for display purposes but even these cost $75. For years Kodak tried to replace dye transfer with a cheaper, less complicated process. The nearest they got was the C-Print. These were acceptable for some purposes but their colors – especially the reds that became a salient feature of Eggleston’s pictures – never matched the vibrancy of dye transfer.
I lost my job a Authenticolor in those dying days of the HUAC/McCarthyite witch-hunts through refusing to sign a loyalty oath; a requirement for anyone working on a job featuring some war planes developed by the Graumann Aircraft Corporation which were still undergoing testing. I moved almost immediately to another photo processing outfit, K&L Laboratories, also located in midtown Manhattan.
At K&L I continued to deal with clients who largely fell into two general categories. The ones that tended to be the most irksome were the ad agency art directors. Typical of the breed were the ones that showed up after a six martini lunch. They would study the original art work and the three prints that had been strategically produced for their inspection and delectation: one identical with the art work and another two more or less following the client’s specifications. The art director would scrunch up his Ivy League driving cap (complete with belt at the back), scrutinize the transparency and prints and opine that it needed a little more… What it apparently needed a little more of was demonstrated by a rather spastically contorted writhing of the hands, fingers and forearms that, while abstractly expressive, lacked explanatory clarity. It would be explained that Kodak produced magenta, cyan and yellow dye. And that we could even make a fourth black matrix, but that the available materials seemed insufficient for exactly replicating whatever the writhing fingers were trying to convey. In contrast were the professional photographers. My favourite was Richard Avedon for whom I produced prints on a few occasions. He would look at the transparency and the proof print and tell me: “Three drops of acid in the magenta and we’ll be just about there.”
One project I especially enjoyed working on – and which presaged the work of Eggleston and the few artist/photograpers who still work with dye transfer – was producing prints for an exhibition of non-commercial shots organized by a co-operative of professional photographers. The photographs were mainly semi-abstract studies and the group had made a deal with the lab whereby each photographer could come and supervise the rolling out of three 8″x10″ prints specifying the variations they would like. I subsequently visited the exhibition in an Upper East Side gallery and found the whole experience gratifying.
By early 1964, after two years in the dye transfer trade I was fairly well-extablished and making pretty good money for a 21 year-old with no family responsibilities. I did tend to work long hours, generally not less than 60 hours a week. However, over one weekend in mid-February of that year I earned considerably more in three days than I usually made in a week. The Beatles (a popular music quartet of whom you may have heard) made their first visit to America during the second week of that month. On a Thursday there was a mass photo-shoot of the group in Central Park. The circumstance that made for my long weekend was that George Harrison, due to a sore throat, did not attend the photo-op in the Park. On Friday afternoon a rush job came into the lab. The commission was to produce a dye transfer of the Fab Four to be used in striking printers’ plates for the cover of the next edition of Newsweek magazine. (My mother, coincidentally, was then employed by Newsweek as an Indexing Librarian.) Apart from the deadline given – the work had to be with the magazine’s printers in Cleveland by Tuesday morning at the latest – the technical problem immediately apparent to us was that of the four transparencies that were the original art work the ones of John, Paul and Ringo were quite warm in tone while the one of George was an old archive one with a markedly cooler tone. Negatives and matrices were made and at about six-thirty that evening I rolled out the first proof print. In it John, Paul and Ringo looked as though they had just returned from a month in the Bahamas while George had a greenish tinge that made him look like a refugee from The Addams Family or The Munsters. An entirely new set of of negatives and matrices were produced and, as eleven pm approached, I rolled out another proof print. It was an improvement but the three Beatles who had been in the Park still looked disgustingly rosy, while George – however interesting he may have looked – was decidedly pale. At this point the management called it a night but ordered the troops to be back on duty first thing next morning. I retired to Al Lang’s New Follies, a West 48th Street bar I frequented in those days, to liquidate some of the six hours of overtime I had just racked up.
After not much more than 40 winks I was back on the case at eight am Saturday morning. An hour or so of fiddling around with dyes saw the prints still coming up with the same contrast between George’s pallor and the other Beatles’ rubicundity. It was then decided to make a third set of negatives and matrices but the first print out of the drier was still a good way off color-coordinated Mop-tops. The next step was more radical: it was determined that separate sets of negatives and matrices be made for each individual Beatle. The process began late in the afternoon and left me to complete a multi-print job not required until the following Wednesday. Around nine o’clock twelve matrices and a black mat were in the dye. The first print was promising but not quite up to scratch. I left the lab at eleven pm, as my colleagues prepared to produce yet another set of negatives &c., having toted up fifteen hours of double-time.
When I arrived at the lab early on Sunday morning the latest thirteen matrices were rocking away in dye, whereupon I ran up against a technical problem of my own. All thirteen matrices had to be rinsed and rolled out consecutively; the time needed to transfer the dye being between three (the yellow) and six (the magenta) minutes, This meant it took about an hour to to produce one print. My difficulty – apart from getting thirteen matrices in register – was keeping the 20″x24″ print paper sufficiently damp to absorb the dyes but not so wet as to allow the colors to bleed. The third print out of the drier was thought to be about right. This was just as well as the, by now the rather jumpy, client was booked on an evening flight out of La Guardia to Cleveland. Under the joint supervision of the client and my boss I rolled out three more prints and the client left with them in his portfolio. Feeling fairly knackered, I wandered over to Al Lang’s having notched up seven hours of Sunday triple-time.
Later that year I saw the Beatles’ film, A Hard Day’s Night. My mother – an ardent fan of British films – had gone to see it with an old friend. She told me they had enjoyed it, although they didn’t quite get the music. I agreed that it was a good flick and said: “You know what I liked best about it?” “No,” she answered, “What?” “It was in black and white.”
NOTE: Those who have seen other posts in the Memoirs category of this site will notice that certain sections – particularly in the chapter “The Nights (& Days) on Broadway” have been cannabilized and reworked for this essay.