Dick Miller: Transcript of Video Interview, June 2005
The Tri-Color Process
Originally I got my carbro materials from New York City. The first material was from Autotype in England. Their material was lousy—a red instead of magenta, a cyan that was too blue. It did not give a satisfactory gray balance. They made materials for years and did not know what they were doing. Later I got materials from the McGraw Colorgraph Company in Burbank, California. They had established a business dedicated to making the finest carbro materials and built a state-of-the-art plant to do it.
The reason I have permanent prints is because McGraw went out of their way to get colorfast pigments. They’d test them on the roof of their building in the direct California sunlight and leave them there for a whole year to make sure they didn’t fade. They went overboard on this.
The printing process took a whole lot of time, but it wasn’t complex. It wasn’t easy to just do; it took time to learn the intricacies and gain experience and judgment. No matter what kind of color printing you’re doing, you’re always thinking these terms: subtractive colors, more magenta, less yellow. I always printed the cyan first—that gave you your print density—but that’s something you just found out by doing it. To get the best results you had to be persistent. Most photographers don’t have the patience to stick with it long enough to really get the hang of it.
I would try to do the bromides for several prints one day then print another day. I assume it took about a day to make a print. It often took five or six bromides to get the right balance for the three good ones. I’d make the cyan first, then make the other two to match that density. If you had a gray scale you were all right, or you could judge flesh tones. I never used the bromides more than twice. The third time you could never get a good take-off.
Registration: That was a job. If you wanted to be able to count the hairs on someone’s arm, you had to be able to register. If the three-color camera was in registration, if the film did not buckle, the negatives still did not just automatically drop in together. You always ended up bending and tweaking the support paper; folding, bending, punching holes in the plastic sheet, top and bottom; and then drilling holes in the sides in order to stretch wires to fix the position while they dried. Originally you had to work with celluloid, which you had to wax, but later we used Mylar. In any case, you couldn’t dry the image too fast on the Mylar/temporary support. Otherwise it would dry unevenly and wouldn’t pull off. If it stuck anywhere, the print was ruined.
I would do some spotting and retouching. It wasn’t a dirty process. I would spray pigment in solution using an airbrush. You could mix any density. I loved using the airbrush. You could make backgrounds by marking paper, carefully cutting around that outline using magnifying glasses, and go wshhht, wshhht over the whole thing. You then pull off the paper mask and you’d have a background.
McGraw Colorgraph closed down in 1984. My friend Reece had worked for them as a consultant when they were planning to bring back pigment printing materials. He took their original coating machine. I filled my car with all their left-over carbro materials. I also took an 8×10 enlarger, which I’ve never used.
Later I filled trash bins with the old McGraw material. I kept enough to make six or seven carbros, but the gelatin has probably hardened and is no good by now. I coated my own pigment papers for a while using DuPont pigments, but finally the non-supercoated bromide paper became hard to find. I have some boxes of Ilford special bromide paper left, but I imagine by now it would be fogged.
You know, everyone talks about how you have to have four colors, but carbros with just the three colors gave you great blacks and beautiful color. Even the highlights show a full tonal range. What amazes me is that a carbro is a registered print. I had to register the three colors, and I can’t see any lack of registration in my prints. And even now there isn’t a more beautiful color photograph than a well-made carbro.
More information on carbro prints:
George Eastman House: Notes on Photographs
Historic Photographic Processes, by Richard Farber (Google Books)
PhotoConservation: Carbro, Three-Color