By Samantha Shields
Early colour photography
Colour photography has existed in some form since the 19th century, but it was not until around 1935 that the technology had advanced enough to be considered practical for amateurs. The mass production of single-shot colour film transparencies, such as the colour reversal film Kodachrome, made it possible to easily create impressive, vibrant colour images. Despite requiring a light source or a projector to view them, colour transparencies grew quickly in popularity, whereas printing in colour remained elusive for the average hobbyist.
The colour printing processes of the mid-20th century were expensive, time-consuming, and complex, requiring greater technical precision and greater knowledge of chemistry than the production of either black-and-white prints or colour transparencies. However, for all the effort necessary to create them, these early prints were frequently a disappointment to their creators. With bright clashing colours and a narrow tonal range, colour prints were frequently described by critics as unrealistic and “garish.” As a result, the early adoption of colour prints was slow, generally left to wealthier amateurs and basement scientists, or to those printing magazines, advertisements, and materials for commercial distribution.
The colour printing process
During the rise of colour photography, manufacturers around the globe were working hard to develop products that would simplify and improve the colour printing process. One of the cornerstone methods during this era of innovation was printing from colour separation negatives.
Simplified, the printing process required the separation of a colour image, from either life or a colour transparency, into three negatives—each filtered for one colour: red, green, or blue. Typically, the photographer would either: create these negatives in succession, an action that risked the subject or camera shifting between exposures; or use a one-shot camera that split the image to expose multiple plates simultaneously. The negatives were used to create relief positives (matrices) to hold corresponding photo dyes (cyan, magenta, and yellow). The dyed matrices were pressed or rolled successively onto the photo-paper in perfect alignment (registration) to create a single full-colour print.By the early 1940s, more colour print options were available to photographers, including the three-colour pigment process, bromoil printing, and the bleach-out process. Among these, the imbibition printing process—first commercially introduced by the Eastman Kodak Company as the Wash-Off Relief process in the mid-1930s—quickly gained attention. This process was later replaced by the Dye Transfer process (1946), in which the assembly of colour prints was most akin to the lithographic colour printmaking processes, making it more practical to run duplicates and batch print orders than with earlier colour printing methods. It also allowed for greater manipulation at various stages in the printing process, and the materials involved were less sensitive to temperature and humidity.
Technical and logistical challenges
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the printing of colour photographs in Canada faced a host of geographic, economic, and chemical challenges.
Canadians were in-touch, but out of stock. While Canada was typically among the first countries to receive new photographic processes, access to materials was not reliable because colour-printing supplies were largely manufactured internationally and shipping was unreliable and slow. This forced many photographers and printers to find innovative solutions and to work together.
Eastman Kodak Co. was a pioneer in imbibition printing photography supplies and services. However, given that the company’s main office and manufacturing plant were located in Rochester, N.Y., the reach of Kodak’s Canadian distribution was limited. Central Canada benefitted the most from having a distribution centre and manufacturing operation based in Toronto (Canadian Kodak Co., established in 1899; later, Kodak Canada Inc.), but its Canadian operations did not stock everything, nor did they produce colour supplies until the late 1960s. While outside central Ontario, photographers did not see another Kodak installation until 1961, when a Kodak colour-film-processing lab first appeared in North Vancouver to service all of western Canada. As a result, most Canadians hoping to purchase Kodak colour goods relied heavily upon their local suppliers.
Purchasing or ordering supplies through the “local guy,” whose goods came from international manufacturers or from distribution centres, meant the following:
- Delays—deliveries could take five weeks or longer.
- Dependency—the availability of products and irregular shipments spanning weeks disrupted the ability of colour-print labs to complete or accept new or large orders.
- Travel—supply orders placed and received in the United States often arrived much quicker (in about five days).
- Collaboration—colour printers frequently loaned or exchanged supplies when facing deadlines amid delivery delays.
Colour photo printing was a much larger financial investment than black-and-white printing, for both the printer and the client. Given the considerable expense and the perceived likelihood of the final images being undesirable as a result of “unnatural” colouring, clients and companies were hesitant to invest. Consequently, colour printers were motivated to produce pleasing high-quality prints for the lowest reasonable price. Many early printers made colour feasible by
- limiting small print orders, which were labour-intensive and costly to produce, as any open, unused chemicals could expire between orders;
- engaging in larger print runs, thus distributing the high cost associated with making the perfect initial print over many duplicates. Subsequent prints were much cheaper to produce, as they required only time, repetition, and consistency, and could be re-ordered even years later;
- targeting advertising and commercial businesses, since they benefitted from the vibrant attention-grabbing colours and could place the necessary bulk orders, and would re-order old prints;
- working together, via camera clubs and photography newsletters, to recommend “dupes” for the more expensive prepared chemicals, as well as to share insights on how to improve print quality and processes;
- importing privately. Supplies were often more expensive to purchase in Canada, even factoring in the added cost of importing. Those lucky enough to live near the Canada–U.S. border could get faster delivery by placing an order with a U.S. supplier and cross the border to purchase cheaper, fresher colour-printing supplies.
There was also a significant expense associated with developing a darkroom for colour processing, as well as learning, largely via trial-and-error, how to make quality colour prints. The high cost and the difficulty of producing colour prints were enough to dissuade the mildly curious, while others, rather than convert their own darkrooms for colour, turned instead to their local camera clubs to learn and experiment with the medium.
Early colour printing, like all photography, was a science as much as an art. Practitioners were often challenged by the exactitude required by the process, having to control all associated variables to maintain quality and ensure consistent printing (e.g., times, temperature, voltage, water treatment).
There were also limitations posed by the chemicals themselves. They expired, and they did so more rapidly once opened. Expired chemicals performed inconsistently and were less effective, making quality printing frustrating and impossible to maintain over a print run. As well, the shelf life of supplies was already shorter in Canada when shipping times were taken into account. This made the stockpiling of supplies risky. Once more, bulk orders and batch printing practices were encouraged in order to maximize the value of the pricey chemicals.Manufacturers issued recommended times, measurements, and additives for using their products. These were generally serviceable, but were rarely perfect for everyone. The difficulties and solution(s) with respect to controlling the different variables were largely dependent on the location of the printer (city or town, hot or cold temperature, stable or variable climate, etc.).
- Variations in water sources and treatments over time and between regions meant that not all water was chemically equal. For example, with the Tricolour Pigment Process, printers needed to account for the presence of any lime or hardening salts in their water because these would react with the bromide silver.
- Fluctuations in temperature during the multi-week transport to Canada negatively affected the integrity of some coated paper.
- Operating in a climate with a wide temperature variation meant Canadian printers had to find innovative ways to maintain consistent darkroom temperatures throughout the year. An asbestos-insulated heating element placed under an out-of-phase rocking tray was the solution for warming a developer presented by colour printer Brodie Macpherson of Toronto.
- A difference of even a few volts can cause variations in the light intensity of enlargers. These inconsistent exposures result in an imbalance in the density of the separation negatives and, by extension, in the appearance of the colour print. Using a regulator and monitoring the voltage was standard procedure.
- Some printers also sought out the U.S.-made “cold lamp,” a cold cathode fluorescent tube bent into a “U” shape that eliminated “hot spots” in printing, for their photo enlargers. This allowed for larger prints, a longer life for supplies, and reduced dependence on variations in voltage. However, since importing these lamps to Canada was prohibited, motivated printers commissioned parts and built their own!
In the end, experimentation with the variables in order for printers to determine the optimal printing conditions for their specific environment and their print preferences was critical to the success of the medium. Through both success and failure, camera clubs and photography publications (e.g., Canadian Photography, Photographic Canadiana) were regular avenues for photographers to seek advice, share their research, and make recommendations.
The final picture
Despite the difficulties involved, colour printing in Canada persisted in the years following the Second World War. This perseverance and the commercial success that this process subsequently earned are due in large part to the early enthusiasm of colour printers. They regularly collaborated to troubleshoot their printing woes, shared insights and theories via camera clubs, lecture series, and international conferences, and published in national and international photography magazines and club newsletters. This dedication—their drive to experiment, perfect, and promote colour prints as a viable medium—laid the groundwork for colour printing’s later success.Also see: Brodie Macpherson: Early photo printer, a blog about a prominent colour printer based in Toronto. A clever and opinionated individual, Macpherson frequently wrote and lectured on colour printing and photography. His work and contributions to the local industry earned him a place among the best colour printers of his day.
Samantha Shields is a Photographic Archivist within Private Specialized Media at Library and Archives Canada.