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Dye transfer

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Method of producing archival quality, colour photographic prints subject to aesthetic control at every stage. The technique, introduced by Eastman Kodak in the mid-1930s and improved in 1946, can be used for reflection images on paper as well as for transparent ones on a film base; it derives, ultimately, from the ‘subtractive’ technique of colour photography.

Colour information can be taken from various types of originals: in-camera separation negatives, colour negatives or positive colour transparencies. A colour transparency is translated by means of red, green and blue filters into continuous-tone separation negatives on panchromatic sheet film. Each separation is exposed on to a special paper through an enlarger and then developed, fixed and washed in hot water to remove unexposed gelatin. This results in a relief matrix of gelatin selectively hardened according to the amount of light reaching it. Each matrix—a red-, green- or blue-record separation positive—is soaked in the appropriate bath of powerful cyan, magenta or yellow dye, which charges the printing surface with colour in proportion to the thickness and receptivity of the gelatin. A good quality ‘receiver paper’ is soaked in distilled water and placed, gelatin emulsion side up, on a sheet of glass. After being rinsed to remove surplus dye, the first matrix is rolled or squeegeed, emulsion side down, on to the printing paper, where it is left long enough for dye to transfer; the other matrices, registered by locating pins, follow. The length of contact and colour sequence provide some of the creative variables, while colour balance and density can be adjusted by adding chemicals to rinse baths. Matrices can also be painted with specially mixed colours. Although the method is not suited to mass production, as many as 800 prints can be made from a set of matrices. The maximum size of regularly produced prints is 1.01×1.57 m, and each print takes at least 20 minutes to make. Under magnification, the colour has the soft, slightly unfocused appearance characteristic of photographic enlargements.

Although exquisite monochrome prints can be made, the control possible in dye transfer has proved of particular interest in advertising and illustration and to such creative colour photographers as Eliot Porter (b 1901) and William Eggleston. Richard Hamilton, several of whose works have explored focus and its relationship to photographic ‘truth’, is the best-known painter to have adopted the process, working in 1969 at Creative Colour in Hamburg. In such works as Bathers (b) (see Hamilton, no. 72), Vignette (see Hamilton, no. 73) and ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ (1969, see Hamilton, no. 71), Hamilton’s approach ranged from the straightforwardly commercial to the extensively interventionist. In 1985 he took up the method again for The Citizen, producing a seamless collage from fragments of 16 mm film by laser. In the late 1980s he continued to experiment with dye transfer to record images made with the Quantel computer paint-box.

Pat Gilmour
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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