Jean Curran, The Vertigo Project. Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo, and the images of Alfred Hitchcock are trademarks and likeness rights of Alfred Hitchcock, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Between the Layers
It always amazes me when I think of what it must have been like for those who, in 1935, paid for their ticket to go see ‘Becky Sharp’, the first full colour movie, in the cinema. This wonder stems from the context of the period in which it was shown. Six years previously, in 1929, the markets crashed on Wall Street, global GDP fell by 15%, and the Great Depression, that was to last through most of the 1930s, began – to put that level of devastation into context, the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 saw global GDP fall by just 1%.
One of the most famous and poignant images to emerge from that time was Dorothea Lange’s black-and-white image of a migrant worker and her children. In 1936, Lange was working for an American government agency called the Resettlement Administration and was sent to document the tiresome journeys of the desperate farm labourers, who moved around in search of work. In California, she met Florence Owens Thompson and her children. Lange’s image of this weary young mother and her two children has become synonymous with the visual language of the Great Depression. It gave the countless families, and millions of Americans who were suffering in abject poverty, a face and exemplified the undeserved cruelty of the time.
Considering Lange’s image of Thompson, and how it has emerged as one of the most poignant images of its time, it’s hard to imagine that the previous year, in that same American state, one of the greatest cultural developments of all time occurred - the release of that very first full colour film. Though ‘Becky Sharp’ may not be the best known colour film of the time, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939) and ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939) are recognised not only as two of the greatest colour films ever made, but staples of the cinematic canon. It amazes me that when we think of that time, and of Florence Owen Thompson, her anguished face, the torn and tattered clothes of her children, the greatest colour system ever used was in action on the silver screen. A world of mesmerising colour opulence, saturation, and vibrancy that sits in harsh contrast to the bleak tones depicted in Lange’s image, though both represent the same point in history existed in parallel.
‘Becky Sharp’ was the first film of a wave that is heralded as the greatest period of cinematic colour ever achieved and the birth of the ‘In Glorious Technicolor’ era of colour films. While silver halide was being replaced with three strip dye transfer colour on the silver screen, there was another company, Eastman Kodak, who were joining the colour revolution and were diligently working away on developing a single roll of film: Kodachrome. Eastman Kodak Ltd.’s colour positive film could be used for both photography and cinematography and was the first modern colour film, being introduced in 1935 for 16mm movies and in 1936 for 35mm stills.
Kodachrome’s early years saw limited public use as colour photography remained too costly for millions of Americans enduring the hardships of the Great Depression. As this era shifted into World War II, the availability of this new full colour film was strictly limited to the military. Therefore, it wasn’t until the prosperous years that followed the war that Kodachrome gained immense popularity with amateur photographers. And whilst they could now afford the film, prints proved quite costly, resulting in the slide show becoming part of postwar American popular culture and visual language.
Technicolor and Kodachrome are tied together, not only because they were both first to market, but because they both made use of the dye transfer process – something that was intrinsically linked to, and necessary for, both processes and was the defining method for both Technicolor and Kodak for disseminating their prints. It was the only method of printing that was capable of reproducing the quality of colours achieved through the Kodachrome colour positive film and Technicolor’s flamboyant and stylised sets.
What was it about the dye transfer process that made the films from this period some of the greatest colour films ever made? Why does the look and feel of these films differ from what we see today? Whilst the answer is quite simple, the method that sits behind it is quite complicated. In order to understand why this colour system surpasses even the highest quality technical colour reproduction methods used today, we must first examine basic colour reproduction theory, and the subtractive and additive systems of mixing colour. The additive system starts as black and, as we add light, colour becomes visible. The additive primaries are red, green, and blue with all colour images being made up of these three colour channels. The subtractive system starts as white and as we take away light, colour becomes visible. The subtractive primaries are cyan, magenta, and yellow and as these are ‘transparent’ colours, when blended together they will create every colour in the spectrum including black. The subtractive primaries of cyan, magenta, and yellow are the opposing colours to red, green, and blue.
Kodachrome and Technicolour made use of dye transfer, which is a system of colour reproduction that involves isolating the red, green, and blue components of a scene onto black-and- white film through the use of red, green, and blue separation filters. The resulting three negatives are then used to produce a set of three positive images. These positives are made by exposing the negatives onto separate sheets of a gelatin relief film called matrix film. Each positive matrix image is then separately dyed in cyan, magenta and yellow, with the amount of dye adsorbed being in proportion to the density of the gelatin forming the positive image, it then transfers the dye image to the final print base, where it is assembled to produce a single, full colour print.
Technicolor supplemented their process with a custom-designed huge camera in which there were three rolls of film, all recording information through either a red, green, or blue separation filter. The film was then processed and exposed onto three separate matrix films and dyed cyan, magenta, or yellow and then registered together to form the full ‘In Glorious Technicolor’ prints that have become synonymous with quality colour reproduction. Technicolor, and its colour film lab, maintained strict control over film productions from the onset, stipulating that directors and studios had to hire the Technicolor cameras, camera operators, and colour directors in order to make a film using their colour system. The role of the colour director was to oversee the art direction of the films and to ensure that the best visual palette for the Technicolor colour system was being used. The most infamous of all colour directors was Nathalie Kalmus, then wife but later ex-wife of Herbert Kalmus, one of the three founders of the Technicolor film production company.
Kalmus’ art school background saw her apply the same rules and principals that a classically trained painter would to each of the movies she forcefully colour directed. Kalmus had her own ideas about how movies should look and what colours should be placed in the foreground and background of each scene. In her seminal essay ‘Colour Consciousness’ (1935) she outlines the rules to be applied in respect to how colour should be presented in the making of each colour film. Kalmus’ aim was not to overwhelm the viewer with too much colour, believing an abundance of colour would distract the viewer from the plot of the story and would become an animated spectacle – particularly if those less schooled than she, in the art of colour direction, be left to their own devices. Kalmus understood the power and ability of the Technicolor process to create colour and therefore one has to appreciate her moderate approach.
Dye transfer’s hayday lasted through to the 1950s, helping create a vivid identity for Americana with its clean vibrant reds, bright yellows, and deep blacks. An identity that helped shape the image of America, and was shipped across the world through creative and colourful advertising campaigns. It also increased the intensity of colour in the everyman’s family snaps, creating a wider gamut of hues that may have been more exaggerated than the reality they represented, elevating the spectacle of the family album.
This point is illustrated perfectly in Guy Stricherz’s 2002 book ‘Americans in Kodachrome 1945-1965’. Guy and his wife Irene are dye transfer photographic printers who put out a call to Americans to submit their post-war Kodachrome slides to be included in a chronicle of this period of American life. The resulting publication comprises ninety-five exceptional colour photographs made by unknown American photographers, and a portrayal of daily life during the formative years of modern American culture. Throughout the pages, the brilliance of the two mediums together is evident. The ability of Kodachrome to capture colours as vibrant and pure, and the dye transfer process as a method of successfully relating the almost magnified tones.
However, though colour film was widely accepted for its aesthetic qualities during this period, colour photography as an art medium had a harder won aplomb. In 1962, Ernst Haas, the famed Magnum photographer, had a solo show of his colour works exhibited in The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The press release written by John Szarkowski states “the color in color photography has often seemed an irrelevant decorative screen between the viewer and the fact of the picture. Ernst Haas has resolved this conflict by making the color sensation itself the subject matter of his work”.
It took an additional fourteen years for another colour photographer to be offered a solo show in the prestigious gallery. It was then the turn of American photographer for this show, ‘William Eggleston’s Guide’, the images were shot on Kodachrome and printed as dye transfers, catapulting both medium and process from the advertising cutting board to that of contentious art medium.
Reception to the work was divisive and passionate. It forced the art world to deal with colour photography as a legitimate art force heralding a new mastery of the use of colour as an integral element of the medium. Today, I am one of only four practicing dye transfer printers in the world and the only artist using dye transfer printing as the basis of their artistic practice. It’s not the easiest road to travel, the necessary dyes and matrix film required to output a photographic print are no longer produced. Kodak, who were the main suppliers of these materials, ceased production in 1991. What materials have been saved over the last twenty years were hoarded by fellow photo print loving nerds like me, who consider dye transfer to be the holy grail of colour photographic reproduction. So taken am I with dye transfer, the craft of printing, and the golden era of filmmaking, that for my last project I isolated twenty frames from the original Technicolor positive of Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s colour masterpiece ‘Vertigo’ (1958). These selected frames were then printed as dye transfer prints, with the full cooperation of the Hitchcock Estate, showing his cinematic wonder as a photographic exhibition.
Before undertaking this work, I had to learn how to dye transfer print: this took four years. Between learning colour chemistry and how to make my own dyes, to mixing formulas for tanning developers, to mordanting fixed out paper, I have learnt to do it all, in the quest for making exquisite colour prints. This isn’t just my passion, it’s my full-time job and for those of you that hope to one day have prints of any sort hanging in a gallery, I recommend you make Ansel Adams’ ‘The negative: exposure and development’ (1948) your bible and learn everything you can about how to shoot on black-and-white film and making a print. Not just any print. But a print that shows your passion for the craft of photography and your understanding of controlling light. Once you have that as your foundation, I believe, you can build anything and go anywhere.
In relation to ‘The Vertigo Project’, there are two questions I am most commonly asked – why Hitchcock? and why ‘Vertigo’? For me, the answer is threefold.
Firstly, ‘Vertigo’ is a cinematic triumph. In 2012 it was voted the Greatest Film of All Time, by the British Film Institute’s ‘Sight and Sound’ poll, where it unseated Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941). No one can doubt the complex structure and witty dialogue of ‘Citizen Kane’, but ‘Vertigo’ is equally well directed and what it lacks in wittiness, it makes up for it in cunningness and colour - colour as a tool to illustrate plot, themes and sub-themes - and for it being an unmistakably ‘Hitchcockian’ movie. Hitchcock is the auteur and ‘Vertigo’ is his movie. Secondly, it is dark. It is so classically Hitchcock, where voyeurism and themes of a dark sexual nature are woven so beautifully throughout the movie that we are almost unaware of the perverseness of it. Thirdly, it has layers and layers. While each image might stand alone as a beautifully composed frame, the positioning of the camera and the colours of the clothes, set and lighting, give each frame weight and meaning beyond their aesthetic surface.
By working with ‘Vertigo’ to present it as an exhibition, my intention was to expose the viewer to the work in a way that would bring focus to the smaller details highlighting the artistry of each frame; and, through my own skill as a dye transfer printer, push and pull the details of colour through various different printing techniques. Hitchcock composed each scene as though it were a painting, I then worked to present these prints so that they teeter on the line of being somewhere between a painting and a photographic print. All the time rooting them in beauty and colour opulence in a way that, hopefully, the viewer can appreciate.