Canada in Colour

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.

A member of the RCMP poses in front of the Parliament buildings for tourists taking snapshots. Ottawa, Ontario, 1949. Photo credit: Chris Lund (e010955585)

A man in a shirt and tie sitting with a young girl in a plaid dress, smiling and looking at a photograph. The brand name “Kodak” appears in the top left-hand corner.

Kodak advertising proof, 1946. Photo credit: Yousuf Karsh-Kodak (a215007k)

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.

Colour photograph of a carrying case and three identical negatives, each in a different colour: magenta, cyan, and yellow.

[Carrying case advertisement: three colour matrices and final print]. Photo credit: Brodie Macpherson (e011310465–e011310468)

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.

Black-and-white photograph of a camera from 1943.

[Example of an] automatic colour camera. Photo credit: Department of National Defence (a064809)

Black-and-white photograph of a camera from 1943.

Macpherson’s Devin-style one-shot colour separation camera. (e011312590)

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.
Page with five duplicate photographs advertising a tiny blue piano and bench inside a red and yellow box covered with music notes. There is also print that reads “200 Direct Color photographs cost less than quadri-color engravings!”

[Advertisement for Brodie Macpherson’s services, with price sheet] Photo credit: Brodie Macpherson (e011310469)

Economic challenges

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.

Colour print of eight different types of cookies and biscuits in clear packaging, as sold by Purity Factories Ltd.

Purity Factories Ltd. biscuits and cookies [advertisement]. Photo credit: Brodie Macpherson (e011312592)

Since small, inconsistent orders made colour printing impractical for most businesses of the time, many portrait studios did not offer colour photography. Those that did, rather than convert their darkrooms, would often photograph in colour and hire out to colour labs to do the processing and printing. The high cost of small print runs was then passed onto the client. For these reasons, black-and-white prints for portraits persisted despite the advancements in colour. Some notable exceptions were wedding and group portraits and holiday cards, for which clients needed additional copies and the cost of ordering colour prints was less prohibitive as a result.

Colour portrait of a woman in a floral dress, front lit, seated in a wooden armchair.

C309 – [Unidentified woman]. Photo credit: Brodie Macpherson (e011310460)

Three black-and-white detail shots of the previous image, identical apart from the density of the exposure relative to the colour filtered: A = red, B = green, C = blue.

Test prints of the separation negatives for C309 – [Unidentified woman] (e011310461- e011310463)

As colour printing improved and colour advertising increased in popularity, colour printers would sometimes receive multiple large orders from different clients. Given the demand on resources, rather than push out a poor-quality product or delay delivery, some colour printers worked in small, trusted networks to refer work to each other when necessary.

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.

Chemical challenges

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.

Twelve-colour grids, four across and three down.

[Colour matrix]. Photo credit: Brodie Macpherson (e011310470)

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.).

Water

  • 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.

Temperature

  • 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.

Young boy sitting in a large winter sleigh. Photo Credit: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton (e010980928)

Voltage

  • 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!
Black-and-white photo of a woman in military uniform using an enlarger.

Enlarger, general view. Photo credit: Unknown/Department of National Defence (a064866)

Black-and-white photo of a man leaning on a desk next to an enlarger.

Jack Marsters with horizontal enlarger in Montreal Gazette darkroom. Photo credit: Richard Arless (a114447)

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.

Black-and-white photographers belonging to Toronto’s Camera Club posing outdoors with their camera equipment.

“A few workers of the Toronto Camera Club.” Photo credit: T. Cannon (a132365)

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.

Colour photograph of the long lineup for the Kodak pavilion at Expo 67.

Kodak pavilion at Expo 67, in Montréal [exterior with crowds]. Photo credit: Unknown/LAC (e011199279)

Kodak representative posing outside the Kodak Pavilion at Expo 67.

Kodak pavilion [exterior detail with representative] at Expo 67, in Montréal. Photo credit: Unknown/LAC (e011199282)

In the background is a grid of backlit colour transparencies of aerial shots. In the foreground are a Kodak representative and a male figure.

[inside] Kodak pavilion at Expo 67, in Montréal. Photo credit: Unknown/LAC (e011199283)


Samantha Shields is a Photographic Archivist within Private Specialized Media at Library and Archives Canada.

Find colour photos of Canadian Second World War soldiers

Did you know that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has rare colour photographs from the Second World War? During that time period, colour film was a new and untested medium for most professional photographers. These images were captured on Kodak Kodachrome film by members of the Canadian Film and Photo Unit (CFPU) in the days and weeks following D-Day, on June 6, 1944.

The CFPU, formed in 1941, was under the command of Captain William Abell of Winnipeg and was staffed by enlisted Canadian men and women. Their goal was to capture images of Canadian military personnel in action, which would then be released by the Department of National Defence to various media outlets. Today these images provide an invaluable record, in living colour, of Canadian servicemen and servicewomen, as well as changing photographic technologies and techniques.

The images are part of a larger set of 1,200 digitized Second World War colour photographs that can be viewed through LAC’s online database. Included are photos of various subject matter, such as Canadian troops in England, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, and on bases and in training in Canada; portraits of notable military figures; the Canadian Women’s Army Corps; troop entertainment; hospital transport ships; and the Canadian role in liberation/occupation duties as photographed by CFPU member Ken Bell.

Search the collection

LAC’s complete digitized collection of colour images from the CFPU includes over 2,000 additional digitized colour images dating to 1961. To view them, consult the ZK prefix. To search within this collection, go to Advanced Archives Search and search using “ZK prefix” and the search term of your choice. An electronic finding aid for the ZK prefix sub-series is also attached to this record and can aid in locating specific images. To learn more about using finding aids in your research, read Discover Finding Aids – Part Two.

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