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Cooking with Ilfochrome...
By Richard Jackson and Leslie Limon

Ask a dozen photographers, “Whatever happened to Cibachrome?” and chances are you’ll get a dozen variations on a theme. Nearly all can tell you it was renamed Ilfochrome years ago, though they probably still call it Cibachrome or ‘Ciba’. Many, with a sad shake of the head, will then lament its passing. And that’s your cue to jump in with the good news: Ilfochrome lives. It still packs a punch. And it’s hotter than ever.

Ilfochrome’s disappearance from the collective consciousness of photographic professionals has mostly to do with the choices of product marketers. Yet among knowledgeable creators, dealers, and collectors of fine art color photography, it is thriving. And rightly so. Up to now, the appeal has always been about its exceptional beauty and longevity. Today there’s yet another reason for its staying power: Ilfochrome, as it turns out, partners amazingly well with digital technology.

Even if Ilfochrome couldn’t ride the digital wave, fine art photographers like photojournalist Steve McCurry would still want to keep using it. McCurry, whose war-zone documentary photos are recognized worldwide, declares that its “unmatched color rendition is vital to the whole point of fine art prints.” In the hands of a master craftsman, he adds, “Ilfochrome is faithful to the original transparency, producing all sorts of subtleties.”

Nature photographer Tom Mangelsen, who owns 18 Images of Nature galleries, uses Ilfochrome for many of his prints, including limited editions. “The combination of film and Ciba material,” he says, “brings a depth of color you really don’t get in C-type materials.”

There’s actually a physical reason for this. Only Ilfochrome incorporates pure azo dyes into the material during manufacture. Having the dyes present in the material at the time of exposure is what produces its unique luminescence and color saturation. With all other color papers (called chromogenic, hence the name ‘C-print’), the dyes result from a chemical reaction during development. The materials, in other words, don’t get to meet the dyes until after they’ve been exposed.

Process difference also affects image stability, explains Jean-Noel Gex, Manager of Technical Services for Ilford Imaging in Marly, Switzerland. The chemical reaction that produces the dyes in C-prints lasts a mere 45 seconds in the darkroom. “That short interval,” he says, “automatically makes the dyes less stable than Ilfochrome dyes, which are produced in the controlled environment of a manufacturing laboratory.”

Ilfochrome’s known archival properties are valued by curators, gallery owners, and collectors. Which makes sense, since most people who invest in an objet d’art want it to stick around long enough to appreciate in value. Most of us are aware of the aggressive claims being made about the longevity of digital output on the basis of laboratory tests. “But Ciba has been around for decades,” says Mangelsen. “Collectors know its longevity potential, they’re more comfortable with it, and don’t need to be educated. To a gallery owner, that’s significant.”

Adds Sid Monroe of Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, “As soon as you start getting into processes that haven’t been around long, the conversation with the potential owner or collector takes a different tangent. It’s no longer about the image, but about the process.”

Photographer Joe McNally, who exhibits at Monroe Gallery, used Ilfochrome to create portfolio images directly from his chromes. Asked to imagine a world without Ilfochrome, he takes the notion of ‘value’ a step further: “If we lose the capacity to create the punch and the saturation of a Cibachrome print, then collectible photos will lose some of their intrinsic artistic value, not just their investment value.”

McNally now captures most of his images digitally, yet Ilfochrome remains an option for him. “Hance Partners takes my digital images and, using their digital enlarger, prints them on Ilfochrome paper,” he explains. “And the results I’ve seen so far have been remarkable.” He sees this breakthrough as a new twist on the old question of expressing—in paper and ink—what the camera captures. “We now have a real bridge to the way we conceive an image, and then translate it to paper with veracity.”

When McNally traveled with the New York City Opera Company to Japan to photograph its production of “Madama Butterfly” and “Little Women,” he shot the entire trip digitally. Private curator and art dealer Ellen Price, who is curator of McNally’s “Faces of Ground Zero Giant Polaroid Collection,” saw Hance Partners’ 11" by 14" proofs of his images and couldn’t tell that they’d been shot digitally. “Their depth and lushness is like whipped cream,” she said. “Or chocolate syrup.”

McNally now feels he has the best of both worlds: digital technology and artisanal results. “When you combine a digital capture from my Nikon D2X with the rich coloration of the New York City Opera Company’s ‘Butterfly’ staging—work with a master printer who pays close attention to light and shadow—and wrap it all into an Ilfochrome print—then you’re really cooking.”

Master printer Richard Jackson owns Hance Partners Professional Darkroom in Flagstaff, Arizona. Hance Partners specializes in making Ilfochrome prints from transparencies, scans, and original digital capture.

Leslie Limon is a freelance writer who has written articles for Camera Arts and View Camera.