Images and Words: An Online History of Photography

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Focal PressRobert Hirsch Exploring Color Photography, Fifth edition (Focal Press, 2011)
Chapter: 2 Section: 23
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2.23. Subtractive Film and Chromogenic Development

Between 1911 and 1914 Rudolf Fischer of Germany, working closely with Karl Schinzel of Austria, invented a color film that had the color-forming ingredients, known as color couplers, incorporated directly into it. This discovery, that color couplers could produce images by chromogenic development (see next paragraph), laid the foundation for most color film processes in use today. In this type of film, known as an integral tri-pack, three layers of emulsion are stacked one on top of another, with each layer sensitive to red, green, or blue. [1|2|23|1480]

Through the process known as chromogenic development, the color couplers in each layer of the emulsion form a dye image in complementary colors of the original subject. During chromogenic development, the dye image is made at the same time as the silver halide image is developed in the emulsion. The silver image is then bleached away, leaving only the dye, which is fixed to form the final image. The problem with the original RGB color tri-pack was that unwanted migration of the dyes between the three layers could not be prevented, causing color inaccuracies in the completed image. [1|2|23|1481]

Some black-and-white films, such as Ilford’s XP2 Super 400 or Kodak’s BW400CN, also make use of the chromogenic system to deliver various densities of black dye. Any lab that develops conventional color negative film (C-41 process) can process these products. For best results, these negatives can be printed on RA-4 paper or scanned and digitally printed. [1|2|23|1482]

In 1930, Kodak Research Laboratories hired Leopold Godowsky, Jr., and Leopold Mannes, musicians who had been experimenting with making color films in makeshift labs since they were teenagers. By 1935 they were able to overcome the numerous technical difficulties and produce the first truly successful integral tri-pack subtractive color reversal film. This film was called Kodachrome and first marketed as a 16mm movie film1. It was said, only half jokingly, that it took God and Man (Godowsky and Mannes) to solve the problem of the color couplers’ unwanted migration between the emulsion layers. Their ingenious solution to this problem was to use the color couplers in separate developers during the processing of the film, rather than build them into the film emulsion itself. [1|2|23|1483]

In Kodachrome film, only one exposure was needed to record a latent image of all three primary colors. The top emulsion layer was sensitive only to blue. Under this was a temporary yellow-dye filter that absorbed blue light, preventing it from affecting the emulsion below. This temporary yellow filter, which dissolved during processing, allowed the green and red light to pass through and be recorded in the proper emulsions below. [1|2|23|1484]

2.24. The Kodachrome Process

Kodachrome was first developed into a negative and then, through reversal processing, into a positive. During the second development, the colors of the original subject were transformed into the complementary dyes of cyan, magenta, and yellow, which formed the final color image. Then the positive silver images were bleached away and the emulsion was fixed and washed. This left a positive color image that was made up of only subtractive colored dyes, with no silver. [1|2|24|1485]

In 1936 Kodachrome was made for the 35mm still photography market. Eastman Kodak was concerned that nobody would want a tiny slide that had to be held up to the light to be seen. In a shrewd move, by 1938 the company was returning each processed slide in a 2 × 2-inch cardboard “Readymount” so that it could be projected onto a screen. At this time Kodak also introduced the Kodaslide projector, reinvigorating the Victorian-era magic lantern slide exhibition, which had been in decline. By the late 1930s the union of the 35mm camera with Kodachrome launched the modern color boom and signaled the end of the additive screen processes such as Autochrome. [1|2|24|1486]

Kodachrome was the first film to achieve the dream of an accurate, inexpensive, practical, and reliable method for making color images. The major drawbacks of Kodachrome were its slow speed (the original ISO of 8 was eventually increased to 200), its complex processing that meant the film had to be sent to a special lab, and the difficulty and expense of making prints from transparencies. Kodachrome’s legendary characteristics, which were commemorated in the naming of Utah’s Kodachrome Basin State Park as well as the 1973 popular song by Paul Simon, allowed it to reign as the benchmark in color accuracy, rendition, contrast, and grain until it finally succumbed to improved and much faster chromogenic films and digital image capture. After a 74-year run as a photography icon, Kodachrome was “retired” in 2009. [1|2|24|1487]

John Vachon
Negro Boy Near Cincinnati, Ohio
1942 (ca)
1 x 2 ins
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.
The introduction of Kodachrome in 1936 marked the modern era in color photography and accurate, reliable, affordable, and easy-to-use color films. Kodachrome gave photographers the ability to respond in color to subject matter from new points of view and to represent previously unseen subjects and situations. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, photographers for the Farm Security Administration, including John Vachon, made some of their photographs in color, using the then revolutionary Kodachrome film in a variety of formats from 35mm to 4 × 5 inches. The complete FSA collection of 170,000 images is available at the Library of Congress.

2.25. Chromogenic Transparency Film

In 1936 Agfa released Agfacolor Neu film, which overcame the problem of migrating the color couplers by making their moleculesvery big. In this manner, they would mix easily with the liquid emulsion during the manufacturing of the film. Once the gelatin that bound them together had set, the color coupler molecules were trapped in the tiny spaces of the gelatin and unable to move. This was the first three-layer, subtractive color reversal film that had the color couplers built into the emulsion layers themselves and employed a single developer to make the positive image. This simplified process allowed the photographer to process the film. Kodak countered Agfacolor with its own version of the process, Ektachrome, in 1946. [1|2|25|1488]

2.26. Chromogenic Negative Film

Agfa brought out a color negative film in 1939 from which positive color prints could be made directly on a special companion paper. Kodak followed suit in 1942 with Kodacolor, which is considered to be the first subtractive color negative film that completely solved the problem of the color couplers migrating from layer to layer in the emulsion. Color negative films, such as Kodacolor, overcame the limitation of each image being one-of-a-kind since any number of positive prints could be made from a color negative film. [1|2|26|1489]

2.27. C-41: Chromogenic Negative Development

The processing method created for Kodacolor is, with many improvements, the basis for all color negative film processes utilized today. In this process, currently called C-41, a single developer produces a negative silver image and a corresponding dye image in all three layers of the emulsion at the same time. Bleach is used to remove all the silver, leaving only the dye. The film is fixed, washed, and dried, which completes the process. [1|2|27|1490]

When making prints from a chromogenic negative with the subtractive method, the light is filtered in the enlarger before it reaches the negative. Correct color balance can thus be achieved in a single exposure. One of the three dye layers in the negative is usually left unfiltered. Printing is simplified because it is not necessary to use more than two filters at one time to make a print. The subtractive method also enables pictures to be made directly from transparency film in a reversal printing process, such as Ilfochrome Classic P3. [1|2|27|1491]

2.28. Additional Color Processes - Silver Dye-Bleach/Dye-Destruction Process

The silver dye-bleach (or dye-destruction) process is a method of making color prints from positives or negatives. Bleach is used to remove the unnecessary dyes from the emulsion, rather than using chromogenic development to produce dyes in the emulsion. In 1933 Hungarian chemist Bela Gaspar commercially introduced this method as Gasparcolor for use in color motion picture work. Today’s Ilfochrome Classic materials, introduced as Cibachrome in 1963, make use of this process to make prints directly from transparencies. [1|2|28|1492]

2.29. Internal Dye Diffusion-Transfer Process

Modern “instant” photography, or, more accurately, selfprocessing film, began in 1948 with the marketing of Edwin Land’s first black-and-white Polaroid process. Polacolor, which Polaroid introduced in 1963 and was the first full-color, peel-apart print film, developed itself and produced a color print in 60 seconds. In 1976 Kodak launched its own line of instant products but 10 years later was forced to withdraw them when Polaroid won patent infringement suits against Kodak’s design. In 2008 Polaroid ceased its film production. However, in 2010 the owners of the Polaroid brand announced a newly designed version of the Polaroid OneStep camera that uses Polaroid Color 600 Instant Film, which is still being manufactured by the Impossible Project. Fuji continues to manufacture its own line of instant (Instax) films as well as an instant film camera. [1|2|29|1493]

Self-processing materials, such as Polaroid, use the internal dye diffusion-transfer process, often called the diffusion transfer process. It operates by causing the dye-formers to transfer out of the negative emulsions layer(s) to a single receiving layer (also in the material), where the visual positive image forms. The three phases of the process — negative development, transfer, and positive development — happen simultaneously, so that the positive images begin to form almost immediately. [1|2|29|1494]

2.30. The Polaroid Process: Diffusion-Transfer

The Polaroid SX-70 camera and film (1972 – 1981), and the later Spectra camera and film (1986 – present) called Time Zero, make use of the diffusion-transfer method. After the shutter is pressed, the motor drive, which is powered by a battery in each film pack, automatically ejects the film through a set of rollers that break a pod of reagent located at the bottom of each piece of film. Development is then automatic and requires no timing. Development can take place in daylight because the light-sensitive negative is protected by opaque dyes in the reagent. Both the positive and negative images are contained within each sheet of film. The diffusion transfer process was also the basis for Polaroid’s Polachrome, an additive color screen film. [1|2|30|1495]

2.31. Color Gains Acceptance in the Art World

Since the 1930s, color photography was equated with advertising, while black-and-white photography was associated with both art and authenticity. This attitude is expressed in Camera Lucida (1980) where Roland Barthes wrote “color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph. For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses).”2 But vast improvements in color film technology, especially in terms of rendition, film speed, and archival qualities, led more photographers to work with color in new and challenging situations. In turn, this produced an attitudinal shift about how and what color photography could communicate, as seen in Eliot Porter’s In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (1962). This seminal project was published by the Sierra Club and in the preface its Executive Director, environmentalist David Brower, wrote: [1|2|31|1496]

Dick Swift
Eliot Porter in Santa Fe
Gelatin silver print
Provided by the artist - Dick Swift

None but a very literal person would fail to see that color is his music, that there is melody line, counterpoint, harmony, dynamics, voicing, and phrasing all there for those who will listen. There is absolute pitch, too – absolute color pitch. As we looked at the dye-transfer prints in Porter’s exhibit … we were quietly amazed by what this man knows about color. 3 [1|2|31|1497]

In the 1960s William Christenberry began making drugstore color photographs as visual references for his practice, but these images of ordinary Southern rural scenes began to be recognized for their ability to stand alone as individual works. By the late 1960s a few museums and galleries began acknowledging color photography as a legitimate art practice. A key breakthrough occurred when John Szarkowski, the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, presented a show by another Southern photographer entitled William Eggleston’s Guide in 1976. In the exhibition catalog Szarkowski proclaimed the images to be “perfect: irreducible surrogates” of understated, vernacular views dealing with the social landscape of the New South. Others, like critic Hilton Kramer, who called them “perfectly boring,” saw them as overblown, trivial snapshots of the mundane that confronted viewers with an insipid emptiness. Nevertheless, the prohibition against color as too crass and commercial to be art had been cracked, granting photographers such as Joel Meyerowitz and Stephen Shore the freedom to begin to use color for its descriptive qualities. In his book Cape Light Meyerowitz said: “When I committed myself to color exclusively, it was a response to a greater need for description … color plays itself out along a richer band of feeling – more wavelengths, more radiance, more sensation … Color suggests more things to look at [and] it tells us more. There’s more content [and] the form for the content is more complex.” 4 Today, with digital cameras and desktop printers, color is so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine a time when it was not the norm. [1|2|31|1498]

William Christenberry
Double Cola Sign, Memphis, Tennessee
Chromogenic color print
11 x 14 ins
Provided by the artist - William Christenberry
William Christenberry grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and has referenced his home environment in his work since he began making color photographs in the 1960s. He states,
“This is and always will be where my heart is. It is what I care about. Everything that I want to say and try to say through my work comes out of that, the feelings about that place, its positive aspects and its negative aspects. For a long time it was the poorest [county in the state], but it is also a county with great lore and legend … One thing that is quite interesting is the response that people in Alabama have had to my work … They think that I am being critical of Alabama and the South. On the contrary it is a love affair with the place. I just happen to choose the passing of time and its effect on things for aesthetic interest.”
Additional examples:
LL/41554 LL/41555 LL/41556 
LL/41515 LL/41558 LL/10200 

2.32. Amateur Systems Propel the Use of Color

The 1963 introduction of the Kodak Instamatic with its drop-in film cartridge generated a tidal wave of amateurs making color snapshots. To service this new consumer demand, companies like Fotomat provided drive-thru kiosks located in shopping center parking lots that offered 24-hour photo processing. At its peak around 1980, Fotomat operated over 4000 kiosks throughout the United States. This democratization of color also led more professionals to work in the medium as people came to expect color photographs. The photography industry attempted and failed to duplicate this success with the creation of other formats such as the 110 in 1975, the Disc in 1982, and the Advanced Photo System (APS) in 1996. Designed for amateurs, APS film is about 40 percent smaller than 35mm, which allowed camera manufacturers to make less bulky cameras and lenses. APS never took hold because the film area was too small for high-quality images and ultimately amateurs elected to go digital. By early 2004 Kodak ceased APS camera production, though Kodak and a few other companies continue to produce APS films. [1|2|32|1499]

  1. In 1915 Kodak patented a 2-color Kodachrome process. It consisted of two glass transparencies: one green and the other red, which when superimposed produced a limited spectrum color image. It was never marketed.
  2. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), p. 81.
  3. David Brower in Eliot Porter, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club, 1962), p. 9.
  4. Joel Meyerowitz, Cape Light: Color Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz (Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1978), unp.



 2.1The First Color Photographs: Applied Color Processes 2.2Direct Color Process: First Experiments
 2.3The Hillotype Controversy 2.4The Additive Theory: First Photographic Image in Color
 2.5Maxwell’s Projection Process 2.6Direct Interference Method of Gabriel Lippmann
 2.7Additive Screen Processes 2.8Joly Color
 2.9Autochrome 2.10Finlay Colour Process and Paget Dry Plate
 2.11Dufaycolor 2.12Polachrome
 2.13Additive Equipment - Additive Enlargers 2.14Digital Enlargers
 2.15Television 2.16The Subtractive Method
 2.17Primary Pigment Colors 2.18The Subtractive Assembly Process: Heliography
 2.19The Kromskop Triple Camera and Kromskop Viewer 2.20Carbro Process
 2.21Color Halftones 2.22Dye-Imbibition Process/Dye Transfer Process
=> 2.23Subtractive Film and Chromogenic Development 2.24The Kodachrome Process
 2.25Chromogenic Transparency Film 2.26Chromogenic Negative Film
 2.27C-41: Chromogenic Negative Development 2.28Additional Color Processes - Silver Dye-Bleach/Dye-Destruction Process
 2.29Internal Dye Diffusion-Transfer Process 2.30The Polaroid Process: Diffusion-Transfer
 2.31Color Gains Acceptance in the Art World 2.32Amateur Systems Propel the Use of Color
 2.33Digital Imaging 2.34The Birth of Computing
 2.35The 1960s: Art in the Research Lab 2.36The 1970s and 1980s: Computers Get Personal
 2.37Digital Imaging Enters the Mainstream  

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