IMPACT | Jean Curran: Do or Dye
By: Ashley Yu
Photographer Jean Curran understands spectra. Be it the divide between journalism and photography or the conversion from black-and-white to color, she knows how bridge gaps and speak authentically as one knowing her craft like no one else. Her latest endeavour, The Vertigo Project, brings to life Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1958 film. As one of the last practitioners of dye-transfer printing, Curran’s experienced hand illuminates Hitchcock’s famed mastery of the cinematic frame like never before.
Ashley: Let’s talk about your Vertigo Project, where you took stills from Hitchcock’s eponymous movie and made them into dye-transfer prints. You are one of the few people left in the world using that technique. Could you tell us more about that?
Jean: Yes. Dye-transfer printing is one of the earliest methods of making a full-color photographic print. You separate a color image into its red, green, and blue channels and then create a negative for each channel, which will be exposed to your photographic enlarger, known as the matrix. The matrix is the same size as the print, so you have to be quite careful because they're very large. Once exposed, you develop the images and leave them to dry. When you have your three matrices ready, you place each into its corresponding bath of dye. So you have a cyan, a magenta, and a yellow dye. The exposed gelatin on the matrix absorbs the dye. Finally, you transfer the dyed matrix onto a receiver sheet of paper. I know this is a long process to describe, but trust me, it is an even longer process trying to get it right.
Ashley: But Kodak stopped producing these materials in 1993. Where do you still get them?
Jean: For the first few years, I experimented with my own dyes and chemistry. The materials I have now and for the Vertigo Project are the last remaining Kodak materials in the world. Some people stocked up beforehand, so I searched for these people all over the world. Bit by bit, I got enough to last. The older people in the dye transfer community are so supportive to see somebody exposing their craft, taking up the mantle, trying to keep this dying art form alive.
Ashley: So you mix all of the chemicals by yourself. Do you have any previous chemistry experience? How did you learn how to do that?
Jean: You just kind of knuckle down and do it. [laughs] No, I don't have any previous chemistry experience, but my mother was a chemistry teacher. She got a lot of phone calls when the project came out in 2018 at the Danziger Gallery. Most of it is through trial and error—a lot of error. That's just the process it takes. In reality, it took me three years of working five days a week, doing dye transfer every single day to get to a point where I could even begin to think about putting a print out.
Ashley: That's intense, to say the least.
Jean: Yeah, I like a challenge. I’ve had moments of complete despair, but also great moments of excitement when you get something right. To me, it's an artistic process. I love the fact that I come into my studio to work every day, and I pour out my dyes. Even with the three dyes, there's infinite possibilities of what they can create. I love that.
Ashley: How long did it take for you to do all 20 prints for the Vertical Project?
Jean: It took me a year.
Ashley: So Alfred Hitchcock is one of the masters of cinema. For you, what is it about Hitchcock that inspired you to make these dye-transfer prints of his films. And why Vertigo specifically?
Jean: Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest artists that ever lived, but we rarely, if ever, see his work in museums or art galleries. His attention to detail and his ability to provide information to the viewer through his use of color and composition, rigorous setups, his costumes, and clever camera angles— he was developing themes and tension, not relying solely on dialogue for moments of action. For me, Vertigo stands out as a beautifully crafted masterpiece. It just has so many layers to the themes and sub-themes. The scenes are all interwoven beautifully and with the greatest intelligence. The way that Vertigo is put together shows that Hitchcock was really at the top of his game when it came out. It's very obvious to anybody who sits down and watches the movie or to those who have studied him.
Ashley: Have you ever studied Hitchcock before?
Jean: No, not in school, but I would go through the movies and do basic research myself.
Ashley: What other films were you thinking about as your contenders? Were you considering similar thriller films, or was it something about Hitchcock himself?
Jean: I considered a few others, but Vertigo was the front-runner. Hitchcock, as an artist himself, was somebody whose work I wanted to explore and spend time with. That's a big thing: A project takes a long time. You've conceived it; you've conceptualized it; you start researching it, before you ever put out a print. So you have got to feel an awful lot for the work because you're going to be spending such a long time with it. As I was uncovering more and more about Alfred Hitchcock, I was also becoming more aware of what a cinematic and artistic genius he was.
Ashley: I read an interview that you went through the Alfred Hitchcock Trust and obtained all the original film. Of all of the thousands of frames, what was your selection process like?
Jean: A long and arduous one. I had great help from James Danziger. Like any editing process, you choose images that you feel will live comfortably within the body of work and on a wall. As the work starts taking shape, often images come into the fold that you didn't first recognize as being great, and they end up being some of your standout images. Meanwhile, there are other images that you are convinced like, “Oh yeah! That's amazing!” but then you lose faith. So you start big, and you whittle away until there is a selection of images that work together, that represent the body of work as best they can. I started to discuss it with James Danziger and his partner at the gallery, Nera Lerner, early on. James Danziger is a really good editor. I think we exhibited our strongest edits for the show. I always am grateful for the support and attention that people give me, especially because I work alone in my studio in London, plugging away all the time. I remember seeing Vertigo years ago as a teenager and not paying attention or having any awareness about his other films, such as Marnie and The Birds. I went back when I was was older and was like, “Oh my God, there are so many brilliant scenes.” It's been an absolute pleasure to work with the Hitchcock Trust as well. They have been so supportive and enthusiastic. I feel really blessed.
Ashley: Hitchcock, as I said, is the cinematic master of suspense, which you have so successfully maintained in your photographs. While you were creating these prints, were you consciously making this choice to preserve Hitchcock's tone, or were you going off to create your own narrative?
Jean: I was very conscious of translating Hitchcock’s cinematic vision into print. I wasn’t trying to rewrite the film because it’s as close to perfect as you can get, which Hitchcock would probably say himself. But I did want to take a film that everybody knows and show it to people in a manner they had not seen before. That was it. It was very much about maintaining the integrity of Vertigo, but representing it in a different context.
For more of this interview, check out the feature in our previous issue entitled “IMPACT” here.