12 forgotten hand-colored images of life in the 1800’s

24 June-2014, Joseph Flaherty/WIRED: Instagram is a decidedly modern invention, but back in your great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents’ day, “Photochroms” were the functional equivalent. Photochroms combined emerging photographic technology and the painterly techniques of the old masters to provide technicolor glimpses of the Great Lakes, Old South, Wild West, and Pacific coast.
These dreamlike vistas have been collected for the first time in a volume called An American Odyssey by Marc Walter and Sabine Arqué. The oversize, $200 book is a sampling of the 100,000 Photochroms created by the Detroit Photographic Company between the company’s formation in 1888 and its closure in 1924.

12 forgotten hand-colored images of life in the 1800’s

12 forgotten hand-colored images of life in the 1800's

Clear Creek Canyon, Georgetown Loop, Colorado.

The Photochrom Process

Photochrom photographers would start the process by coating a printing plate with a light-sensitive emulsion and then exposing a glass plate photo negative onto it.
Unlike modern four-color printing process that can represent millions of colors by overlapping tiny dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink, the inks mixed for Photochroms were mixed by hand in an attempt to perfectly match the yellow-green sunblasted scrub brush that surrounds the Grand Canyon or the aquamarine ocean water of the Bahamas.
The photographers would erase the entire plate except for the area reserved for that specific color and make 10-15 more plates to fill out the composition. Photographic details were preserved, but an emotive, if slightly artificial, range of color was added.

The Detroit Photographic Company toured large Photochroms on trains and the U.S. Government supercharged their spread by passing a law that allowed Photochromic postcards to be sent for a penny, rather than the going rate of two cents.
Like the locomotives of that era, labor-intensive Photochroms lost steam as the first color film debuted in 1907, and Kodak made color snapshots widely available with the release of Kodachrome cameras in 1935. However, as a testament to the charm of the technique, the last Photochrom factory didn’t close its doors until 1970.

In this print, several plates were printed with different brown inks to capture the dusty wonder of the Grand Canyon.

In this print, several plates were printed with different brown inks to capture the dusty wonder of the Grand Canyon.

Photochroms predated color film by decades and combined the emerging science of photography with time-tested painting techniques.

Photochroms predated color film by decades and combined the emerging science of photography with time-tested painting techniques.

Mulberry Street, New York.

Mulberry Street, New York.

Multiple printing plates were made with each negative and parts of each plate were erased to feature a single color.

Multiple printing plates were made with each negative and parts of each plate were erased to feature a single color.

The colors are saturated and sort of dreamlike rather than exact representations of the color spectrum.

The colors are saturated and sort of dreamlike rather than exact representations of the color spectrum.

William Henry Jackson Diving for coins, Bahamas.

William Henry Jackson Diving for coins, Bahamas.

Sunset from the Battery, New York.

Sunset from the Battery, New York.

A Monday washing, New York.

A Monday washing, New York.

The result are prints that combine photographic levels of detail with a painterly feel.

The result are prints that combine photographic levels of detail with a painterly feel.

Seminole Indian family in dugout canoe, Miami River, Florida.

Seminole Indian family in dugout canoe, Miami River, Florida.

The prints started out as traditional black and white negatives on glass.

The prints started out as traditional black and white negatives on glass.

Zuni Pueblo Indians, the Rain Dance, New Mexico.

Zuni Pueblo Indians, the Rain Dance, New Mexico.