Dye transfer is a complicated printing process developed by Kodak in the early days of color photography in the 1940’s. Despite its complexity and high cost, dye transfer maintained its position at the high end of color printing all the way until the mid-1990’s. Finally, the migration of advertising photography to digital techniques, coupled with environmental concerns and loss of skill in the production process, led Kodak to discontinue dye transfer materials in 1994. Today there remain a small number of individual printers and one specialist lab (CVI Laboratory) who still have materials and are producing dye transfer prints.

The dye transfer process begins with the making of color separation negatives from an original transparency or full-color negative. Contact printing or enlargement is used to expose each separation negative onto a gelatin-coated ‘matrix’ film positive in the same size as the eventual print. When processed, the matrix retains gelatin in proportion to the amount of the given primary color in the full-color original. In the final step, the matrices are soaked in aniline dyes and rolled in register onto a plain photographic paper base, creating a continuous-tone full-color print. Advanced dye transfer printers may use complicated masking techniques, chemical adjustments in the dyes, and a variety of other techniques to fine-tune the image.

The resultant print has incredible color saturation and vibrancy, yet can be more subtle and retain much better shadow and highlight detail than Type-C, Ilfochrome, and other traditional color prints. Historically, dye transfers were also the most archivally stable of color prints, though the pigment-based inkjet prints from Epson and other manufacturers have now set new standards in archival longevity.

I never made dye transfer prints myself. The time I was able to commit around work was insufficient given the effort required to become competent—much less expert—with such a complex process. Also, unless one is printing on a near-daily basis it is difficult to keep the process calibrated given subtle changes in the chemicals. In 1992, I began working with Guy Stricherz and Irene Malli of CVI Laboratory in New York City (now Vashon, WA), who printed small editions of a number of my images over the subsequent years. Guy and Irene are master printers in the traditional definition of the term. They have made (and continue to make) exhibition prints for many of the best-known names in photography.

It is hard to imagine now, but there was a discouraging period in the mid-late 1990’s when it was not clear what process, if any, would satisfy the requirements of fine-art color print making. Dye transfer materials had been discontinued by Kodak, and even then Ilfochrome was the subject of rumors about its future. The early attempts at high-end digital-based printing (for example Evercolor) struggled to find a balance of workable process, quality, and commercial viability. In that context, the remarkable developments in digital color printing—now taken for granted—were particularly welcome. Epson, HP and Canon continue to develop a progression of printers and inks of increasingly high quality, while establishing new standards for archival longevity. Fuji Crystal Archive paper has admirable archival characteristics, and is often exposed in high-end laser printers which can make very large prints without the optical degradation of traditional enlargement. A number of individual printers known at one time for dye transfer became early pioneers of digital printing techniques.

I become fully committed to digital printing techniques quite some years ago as quality improved, and as dye transfer faded away. Also, there was always a need for a high-quality archival process of lower cost than dye transfer, which even in its day was very expensive. Nonetheless, dye transfers remain the most beautiful color prints in the world.