John Bladen Bentley isn’t in a hurry. This is a man who spends five days making a single photographic print. A man who has spent 15 years of his life perfecting a form of colour printing from the 19th century. Who measures chemicals to the microgram and can see days of work vanish when a single layer of pigment tears. Bentley is the last colour carbon transfer printer in Canada. He is only one of four men who undertake the art and craft of carefully creating, exposing and aligning yellow, blue, magenta and black light-activated pigments to create what Bentley believes are the rarest and finest colour prints on the planet.
The work is getting harder for Bentley. Companies aren’t making the chemicals, the film, the pigments he needs. He no longer can lug around his beloved 8X10 Deardorff view camera and its heavy metal tripod. And he’s not even sure anyone cares about his art anymore. “I’m getting tired of banging my head against the wall,” he says. Bentley says photographic schools have given up their wet labs and digital photographers with inkjet printers don’t even know what they’re looking at when they see his prints.
But those prints are rarities. Colour carbon transfer prints are the scarcest photographs that exist, Bentley explains. “Very few of them were ever made.” His prints has a luminance, colour range and clarity that can only be appreciated in person. Because the pigments have thickness, even when dry, you can feel the woodgrain in a table Bentley has caught on film. His work focusses on the unseen, the details and tableaux most of us pass by. Bentley says he has no apprentices. “I’ve had students who have begged me to show them what I do. But after a week, once they see how difficult it is, they leave,” he explains. So, when Bentley and his three fellow printers pass on, so will an art form that makes photographs unique artifacts of the eye and hand.