Richard C. Miller
Master of the Carbro Process

by Paul Martineau

Over a decade before the 1935 introduction of Kodachrome colour film by Eastman Kodak, a subtractive colour process was developed that made it possible to create vivid prints from black & white negatives. The tricolour carbro transfer printing process - or carbro - demanded strict technical control but produced highly-saturated and permanent colour prints.

BECAUSE OF its complexity and high expense (some practitioners reported a finished print took about 10 hours to produce at a cost of $125), the carbro process was rarely the province of the amateur. By 1937, full colour illustrations made from direct colour prints were being used regularly in the big subscription magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House Beautiful. Colour photography in the form of carbro prints was also being shown in museums and in popular touring exhibitions. In the United States, photographers Anton Bruehl, Nickolas Muray, Paul Outerbridge, Edward Steichen, and H.I. Williams, among others, became identified with the quality and artistry of their carbro prints through a participation in these publications and exhibitions. The demand for colour advertising photography was such that a few of the top photographers regularly commanded prices ranging from $300 to $1000 per print.

There were other accomplished workers in the field, who were passionate about the potentialities of colour but who, for whatever reason, did not achieve a similar fame. Richard C. Miller (American, born 1912) is one of them. Miller mastered the complex multi-step carbro process and launched a career as a freelance photographer that spanned over forty years. At the age of 96, Miller may well be the last photographer to have practiced the carbro process during its heyday.

Never much of a self-promoter, Miller rarely exhibited his prints and freely admits that some of his happiest moments were spent within the confines of his darkroom. Fortunately, Miller’s hermit-like tendencies were balanced by great personal warmth and an eagerness to share his knowledge with others. These qualities won him the admiration of a younger generation of photographers - Michael Andrews, Marc Madow, and Reece Vogel - who have been working to preserve Miller’s archive and bring his photographs to the attention of the public.

The son of the Reverend Ray Oakley Miller and Laura Belle Crump, Miller was raised in Los Angeles from the age of five. He was fascinated with the camera his father used to take pictures of the family – a folding model that held 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ inch roll film. At sixteen, he set up a darkroom in his parent’s home at 715 South Serrano, where he processed and printed his own black-and-white film. Miller graduated from Los Angeles High School and studied at Stanford University, Pomona College, and the University of Southern California.

In 1935, Miller appeared in a stage play at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, a move made to impress his future wife, Margaret. Looking for something to do between scenes, he borrowed a Leica from a friend and started making portraits of his fellow actors. During a trip to New York City, Miller showed some of his photographs to Edward Steichen (1879-1973), the leading commercial photographer of the day. Encouraged by Steichen’s comments, Miller returned to Los Angeles, finished his final year of college, and decided to pursue a career as a professional photographer.

'Encouraged by Steichen’s comments, Miller returned to Los Angeles, finished his final year of college, and decided to pursue a career as a professional photographer.’

In 1939, Miller used an instruction manual to learn the carbro process. He began as most practitioners did, using a conventional Korona view camera that held 4 x 5 inch glass plate negatives to make the three separate exposures necessary to make a carbro print. In the darkroom, precise timing and temperature control were tantamount to producing quality results. Miller realised this and tested all his materials before printing from his negatives and bromides.

Miller’s first carbro prints were simple but elegant arrangements of flowers and other objects in the studio. Three Vases is an example that demonstrates his ability to harmoniously combine colour, texture, and form. As soon as he was confident that he could produce prints of a high technical standard, Miller purchased a National Lerochrome one-shot colour camera. This was a major financial investment, but one that allowed him to move beyond still life to portrait and landscape photography.

As he was learning how to make carbro prints, Miller also experimented with Kodak’s new wash-off relief process (the precursor to the dye transfer process), but decided that he preferred the carbro print for its highly saturated matte colours and somewhat glossy blacks to the overall glossiness of the wash-off relief print. He understood that the pigments used to make carbro prints were more stable and less prone to fading that the dyes used to make wash-off relief prints –- a factor that influenced his decision.

In 1941, Miller made a carbro print of his daughter, Linda, sitting at a table set for a Thanksgiving Day’s meal. He sent the picture to The Saturday Evening Post and it was selected to be on the cover of the November 22, 1941 issue. Miller’s picture was the first photographic cover used by the Post that captures the type of scene from everyday American life made famous by the painter and illustrator, Norman Rockwell. Although the underlying structure of the composition is simple, the resulting composition is strong and demonstrates an interesting resolution of a creative problem. Miller began by photographing his daughter sitting at a table set with only a plate and spoon. He photographed the other elements such as the turkey, the dish of cranberry sauce, the glass of milk, and the candlestick separately. He printed them, cut them down, and then added them into the original composition. This ‘cut and paste’ method allowed him to construct the picture one element at a time, carefully balancing form and colour.

The Post cover brought Miller the attention of the advertising agencies and he joined the Freelance Photographer’s Guild of New York City. Unfortunately, the advent of World War II made business difficult and despite the successful completion of a number of commercial projects, Miller was not earning enough money to properly support his growing family. Forced to find another source of income, he took a war job at North American Aviation, photographing airplanes for service manuals. It was at North American that Miller established a lifelong friendship with photographer Brett Weston (1911-1993). When they were able to, Miller and Weston combined their extra petrol coupons and took trips out to the desert and other locations to make photographs. Miller’s photograph of the railway yard in Irvine, California was taken on one of their outings. ‘To get the shot I wanted’, Miller later recalled, ‘I had to lean way over the edge of the bridge that Brett and I were standing on. Brett held on to my legs so I wouldn’t kill myself.’

Miller continued to work nights and weekends in the darkroom, creating carbro prints for himself and selling colour pictures to magazines. In 1944, he took a job as a printer for Dr. Bela Gaspar, the inventor of eponymous dye-bleach colour process that was later developed into the Cibachrome process. Miller’s job was to test and print all the materials, which he did from his own Kodachrome transparencies and one-shot negatives, turned into positives.

At the end of the war, Miller left Gasparcolor and returned to freelancing. In 1946, Miller photographed a model provided to him by the Los Angeles based, Blue Book Model Agency. Her name was Norma Jeane Dougherty (later Marilyn Monroe). They worked together though several sessions over a two month period in his studio and at outdoor locations in Hollywood, Santa Monica, and the San Fernando Valley. Miller’s photograph of Norma Jeane wearing her own bridal gown was featured on the cover of Personal Romances magazine.

By the late 1940s, the carbro print had been superseded by the dye transfer process. ‘Almost everyone was printing dye transfers,’ Miller later recalled, ‘it was easy to make duplicates because you could use the same matrix over and over again. If I was lucky, I could use a bromide print twice when trying to make a second carbro print.’ At the time, Miller was photographing celebrities on assignment for Life, Time, Collier’s, and American Weekly and the majority of the work was done in black-and-white.

From 1955 to 1962, Miller worked on retainer for Globe Photos, providing location coverage for films such as Giant (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959). During this period, Miller covered more than seventy films. On the occasion when he was called upon to shoot in colour, he provided commercially processed Kodachrome or Ektachrome transparencies or prints to the agency.

In 1962, Miller entered semi-retirement, occasionally shooting motion picture and other assignments. That same year, the McGraw Colorgraph Company of Burbank, California discontinued production of carbro tissue. When asked about this development, Miller said, ‘I stopped making carbro prints long before they stopped making the materials. Otherwise it would have broken my heart. When you look at these carbro prints, you realise that you cannot do this with any other colour process. They are exquisite.’

Paul Martineau is Assistant Curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

A selection of Miller’s colour prints are featured in the exhibition Paul Outerbridge: Command Performance, which will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum from March 31 through August 9, 2009.

Named carbro because it combines the carbon process and silver bromide prints to create a single colour print, the process requires three separate exposures be taken on black and white film each through a different coloured filter (blue, green and red). Three glass negatives are printed as positives on a special silver bromide paper. The silver bromide prints are put in contact with carbro tissue, papers that are coated with pigment and gelatin, corresponding to the complementary colours (cyan, magenta, and yellow) of the filter used to create each image. The tissue is transferred to sheets of Mylar and placed in a warm water bath so that the unhardened gelatin is washed away. The three layers of pigmented gelatin are registered on a single temporary support before being placed face down on a sheet of blank white paper to create the final full colour image.

The one-shot camera has two pellicle mirrors inside that split the beam of light entering through the lens into three chambers at the back of the camera. These chambers each hold a coloured filter and the glass plate necessary to make the separation negatives. In the late 1930s, one-shot colour cameras cost about $1500, a hefty sum at the time.