Dye Transfer Prints


The Dye Transfer Process

Dye Transfer is a color printing process that is considered to be the finest production process in the history of color photographic printing. It’s use in fine art photography has been furthered by such artist’s as Irving Penn and Elliot Porter.  In the late 70’s Kendra North was a shooting-star, and during her brief claim to fame, she furthered a hand-dying technique using synthetic color with the dye transfer process.  I took a workshop with her at the time and used this process for my work in order to move out of the toxic silkscreen process.

The use of dye absorption into gelatin-coated paper for making full-color prints was first patented by Charles Cros in 1880, and popularized by Eastman Kodak in the 1940s. The process requires making a relief “image” on dye transfer matrix film.  The image on this special film has varying thicknesses of gelatin representing the values of the image.   Dyes are then absorbed into the film in
proportion to the density of the gelatin relief image. The dyes in the film are in an acid PH environment and do not migrate or bleed.  A piece of gelatin coated paper is then soaked in an alkaline PH fluid. When the matrix film is contacted with the gelatin-coated paper, the dyes migrate from the film to the paper.

The dyes and chemicals are spectrally pure compared to normal photographic dyes, and have excellent light and dark fastness. The Dye Transfer process
possesses a larger color gamut and tonal scale than any other process, including inkjet. Dye Transfer allows the practitioner the highest degree of photographic control compared to any other photochemical color print process.

Inexplicably in 1994, Eastman Kodak stopped making all materials for this process and now this process is gone forever.

Levitations series

These images are all straight photographs, done before the digital era.  They are examples of my early work with still life fabrication for the camera.


The still life fabrication from 1979, is from a series where the little wooden spaceship was used as a metaphor for exploration into our sub-conscious psyche.  In ancient Egyptian religion, the turtle represents a time in the history of the universe referred to as the primordial waters – a time before light and a time before the big bang.  Although this reference is extremely obscure, the turtle existing in the pre-conscious, dark waters of the universe is a beautiful metaphor for our conscious attempts at understanding the sub-conscious.

The idea comes from the basic principle of ancient Egyptian cosmology and the Primeval Waters. Although the details vary, every ancient Egyptian creation myth assumes that before the beginning of things, the Primordial abyss of Waters was everywhere, stretching endlessly in all directions for infinity.  It was not like a sea for it had no surface or bottom and was not contained.  There was no region of air or visibility.  All was dark and formless. In one popular version of the creation myth, there was an invisible egg, which took shape before the appearance of light.  In fact, the Bird of Light burst forth from the egg.  This egg not only contained the Bird of Light but also air and the breath of life. This egg was laid by a goose known as the Great Primeval Spirit. This bird was the Great Cackler whose voice broke the great silence.  The hatching of the egg with the Great Cackle, is similar in essence to the contemporary Big Bang Theory of creation.

In one of the Book of the Dead spells, the Primeval God assumed several forms as its seed grew to disguise itself.  One of these forms was the tortoise, which I refer to in this image as a form slowly moving in the dark, watery abyss – much like a space station as it eloquently glides in a gravity-less space.  The explosive tortoise shell contained the light of the first morning, the beginning of life and existed in a black infinite abyss prior to any state of consciousness. The turtle shell was a vessel which contained the seed of consciousness in the primeval abyss of darkness. 

In 2011, this same turtle metaphor reoccurred in The Strange Beauty series, titled “Ancient Voyager”.  The turtle is one of the most unique, pre-historic life forms on earth.  In this image of a giant alligator-snapping-turtle shell, the ancient form was placed in a dark space to give a feeling of an infinite void.  The simplicity of the composition emphasizes the perfect, natural aerodynamics of the form as it silently moves through black, cosmic space.  It is much like a spaceship, smoothly moving through the infinite space of the universe.

Related Work

The Erotic Fruit Series


Broken Bowl

Cirque d'Escargot


    Copyright John Bonath 2019