Monday, March 5, 2012

Early color transparencies at the George Eastman House

I'm putting up this shot of the emulsion making workshop group taken in October 2011 when our class was shown some very early two color pre-Kodachrome transparencies.  The solemn gaze of the participants is coincidence as we were having quite a fun time that day among the Westons, Adams, Evans and Langes perched on the wall for us to admire, and co-instructor Mark Osterman (right) an early process historian, had this additional treat for us to view. Here we were in the basement of the Eastman House conservation rooms, the epicenter of reposed photographs of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

You must imagine these early 8x10 color transparencies: The delicate two part system has to be placed in perfect registration and even the parallax error from our viewing position was enough to produce color fringes. But straight on, there was yellow, and other tones we recognized among the reds and blues, and greens. A charming garden scene, Victorian color. Another view - A portrait of a rather stern woman, in vivid pink - elicited some humorous chatter, perhaps a bit impolite amid reverence for the pioneers of color who early on sought to find, and refine the highly specialized photosensitive materials we consumed for decades and now rarely buy.

Last week we heard that Kodak was discontinuing the manufacture of color transparency film, due to lack of demand. Lack of demand is a good reason not to do something and is logical if not regrettably justifiable in the face of more productive ways to obtain commercial photo-like images. One only need to look back at the work of Albert Kahn to see that color photography is not at all new, and realize, that with effort, even black and white processes can be adapted to color, when we need it. If we need it. One thing that amuses me most about the Kahn color photographs is how similar they seem to our much more modern fujinegs, even to the borders, or rebate areas, irregular and somehow charming as they take us deep into the past.

You would think that E6 film would be gobbled up at this news, but there is plenty on ebay and on Amazon, and Fuji, for now, still does produce color slide film. If you need some 4x5 color slide film for not much money, look into Kodak Readyloads, still plenty of those available, and a handy way to do three or four shots with that field camera.

Link to the early Capstaff 2 color Kodachromes here. 

embedded here

 Chris H. has left a new comment on your post "Early color transparencies at the George Eastman H...":

Found some more stuff of interest. This blog is apparently by Capstaff's grandson! Seriously, I didnt' expect to find that...

This portrait of Mrs. Capstaff reveals the dye colors (in the scratches). Examples we saw actually looked much better than this, in terms of color rendition.

Another still life.

And finally, the holy grail... GEH's IMAGE, Vol. 30, No. 1, September 1987

I will try to put together a more concise article on this at some point, as per your suggestion Bob.

Hmm, there's probably actually some money in nanolithography. Maybe I should dive in there. haha...

p.s. Sorry for the long links.


cafe selavy said...

I am overwhelmed. Thanks for this. To be on the same page with Kahn will keep me going for a long time.

Bob Crowley said...

Your photographs are fantastic.

Chris H. said...

What a surprise it was to see that photo this morning, Bob. I happen to have donned the exact same shirt today... spooky... ;-)

What I remember best about Capstaff's 2-color Kodachrome was a picture of a Bausch & Lomb microscope. It left nothing wanting in terms of realism. The wood table, the green backdrop, the painted metal & chrome parts all looked amazing. 2-color can nail certain scenes, and this process was specifically designed with skin tones in mind.

Cheers, c.h.

Bob Crowley said...


I don't think I saw that one. I only remember two; a garden, and the stern woman. They did have a lot of magic. The possible loss of 'chrome was on our minds then. Are there links to Capstaff anywhere?

Chris h. said...

This is of course Capstaff's Kodachrome ->

These US Patents (easily found on google patents) should get anyone started on the right path. There might be more, but these cover the general idea with a few different permutations:


It'd be easy enough to make prints of this style today, either using silver film or dichromated-gelatin and finding suitable dyes. The dyes used were never actually disclosed, but there are workarounds. I requested to view these and they only brought out a fraction of all that they have. Egads...

Bob Crowley said...

Let's do this. How can we get started? What are the dyes we need? I've posted a live link above so people can see the youtube vid on Capstaff.

Anonymous said...

They keep a lot of stuff secret at the Eastman House, still.

Anonymous said...

This truly looks like some kind of religious scene. The movie is great except the weird model at the end.

Chris H. said...

Let's see if I can be succinct...

1st you need separation negatives taken through a red and a green filter. You will also need 2 acid dyes; a teal & a red-orange. (having seen them in person, these are the best descriptors I can come up with) RIT fabric dye might even work for a really basic test. And of course, the red negative is dyed green while the green negative is dyed red.

You could, at this point, go in 1 of 2 directions.

Capstaff bleached the negatives on film with a tanning bath given in USP 1,196,080; this tanned the highlights (or rather, tanned the film in proportion to the presence of silver) and rendered these areas inpenetrable to the dye, thus a positive dye image is formed. (This is known as a planographic matrix, and is akin to the old Pinatype process). You'd want to mount them emulsion-to-emulsion of course.

The other way, which might be easier, would be to print these negatives using the carbon method, but with unpigmented gelatin and on a clear support, either glass or subbed melinex. With a hot-water etch you create a relief matrix, and the whole thing will soak up dye in proportion to the gel thickness.

Lastly, you could combine the 2 processes in a sense, and create a planographic gel matrix with the carbon process and printing from positives.

The historical caveat here is that the kind of dye that creates a positive in a planographic matrix has never been "disclosed", or so it's been said by people like J.S. Friedman in the past. The key however, might be that this phenomenon is actually due to a much greater exposure (or degree of tanning) and not some characteristic of the dye. 'Cuz think about it.. if a relief matrix is composed of fully tanned gelatin (i.e. it survived the etch), and a planographic matrix encompasses the whole continuum of "tanned-ness", why wouldn't the high-lights soak up as much dye as the relief matrix? Perhaps a higher degree of tanning is the key, but IDK... these are the things that keep me up at night.

Bob Crowley said...


It might be fun and interesting to put together an article out of this, perhaps with some pictures and further explanation of what is known, and what needs to be uncovered still. It is fascinating and infuriating that EKC and others have kept these secrets in vain. It is clear to me that there are many who do have firsthand knowledge from EK and Old Pol who we need to ask to contribute before it is lost forever.

Bob Crowley said...

If you looked into nanolithography journals today you would be amazed at how researchers are still trying to develop processes - not for photography - that use variable thickness layers and relative absorption of chromophores to do all kinds of things. Maybe some of these researchers are out of EK or Old Pol.

Bob Crowley said...

I also get creeped out seeing those pouty lips. What was that all about? Religious, eh. Could be shades of it, look at that composition.

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