The Magic of Ilfochrome
What is Ilfochrome?
Ilfochrome, (formerly known as Cibachrome) occupied a unique position in analog photography as the only available method to create handmade photographic prints directly from color slide film. It is a direct-positive, chromolytic process. Yellow, magenta and cyan azo dyes are incorporated into a white-opaque polyester based paper and bleached during processing to reveal their latent color.
Ilfochrome's Unique Characteristics
Two key characteristics distinguish Ilfochrome from other traditional and digital photographic printing papers. First, the polyester based paper (Melinex by DuPont) has exceptional dimensional stability — it's very flat and sturdy. The paper is also chemically inert giving the paper a bright neutral white color. Ilfochrome's surface is exceptionally smooth giving prints a high gloss finish with light reflectance that is somewhat directional — viewed at oblique angles, prints can have an almost metallic appearance.
Second, unlike conventional chromogenic processes where image dyes (colors) are created through chemical interaction, Ilfochrome's color is already present in the azo dye layers embedded in the paper's emulsion. During the bleaching process these dye layers are broken down (literally destroyed) revealing their respective color, the combination of which creates the resulting full color image. Azo dyes are inherently very stable and have good spectrophotometric characteristics with minimum light scattering. Prints exhibit excellent color saturation and hue rendition with high resolution and sharpness.
Beauty Hand Crafted
My love and ongoing commitment to Ilfochrome is rooted in values of hand craftsmanship and creative expression. While it can be argued digital printing has exceeded traditional wet darkroom printing in technical quality and finite creative control, I am not convinced the digital imaging process is inherently or aesthetically better than wet darkroom printing. In reality they are fundamentally different. But a well printed Ilfochrome displayed in proper lighting has a three dimensional depth and luminosity that is still unrivaled in all color photographic printmaking. And there is a moment of magic when a wet print is pulled from the processor, revealing a glowing affirmation of a successful performance in the darkroom, a moment digital imaging simply has no equivalence to.
Putting my aesthetic bias aside, there is a factor even more important to me in the grand scheme of things. Ilfochrome as a tool of crafted expression, seems ideally suited to my photographic style and interests. And this is, I think, a critical point. It is essential for any craftsman or artisan to realize their vision through chosen tools best suited to them even when they fly in the face of popular trends and paradigm shifts in a medium. The marriage of suitable process to artistic intent is fundamental to realizing the highest achievements in personal creative expression.
Ilford Bankruptcy (2014.01.10)
As reported internationally last December, Ilford Swiss is indeed bankrupt. I've received confirmations from trusted sources. This does seem to be the end. Given the number of times Ilford has been left for dead and somehow managed to raise itself from the ashes, you want to hold out hope. But, I'm now resigned to this sad news.
There are a number of Ilfochrome printers who made significant investments in paper and have subsequently been squeezed on the chemistry. I have about 65% of the chemistry I need to print all my paper. I hold out hope some people more influential than I may be able to negotiate rights to produce more chemistry and continue the ink jet side of the business. Time will tell.
Finally, it should be noted that Ilford Swiss is separate from Ilford Photo which still actively produces black and white film, paper, and chemistry.
Ilfochrome's Final Hurrah
On September 26, 2011, Ilford announced the discontinuation of its line of Ilfochrome Classic materials and the related P3/P3X chemistry citing decreased demand and higher product costs exacerbated by the dramatic increase in the cost of silver. A beloved product of traditional print makers for nearly 40 years had come to an end.
Fortunately, Ilford proposed one last production run contingent on "sufficient" demand. Demand turned out to be high and I've secured enough material to continue print making over the next 2-3 years.
Read the Marketing Bulletin (pdf).
Archival Characteristics of Ilfochrome
Tests originally conducted by Ilford and cited by the de facto current standards body, Wilhelm Imaging Research, rates Ilfochrome under recommended viewing conditions, at 29+ years before noticeable fading will occur. Questions about testing methodology coupled with anecdotal evidence from collectors who've owned prints for well over 30 years, suggests the paper actually lasts much longer.
Dark stored, Ilfochrome is rated at 200+ years, which can be interpreted to mean "indefinitely". As with any archival standards, each individual's mileage may vary depending on environmental conditions.