The rocky road to color photography

Before a way was finally found to achieve affordable, reproducible color photos, attempts were made that – while ultimately futile – produced beautiful and collectible results.

Although people were initially bowled over by photography, they soon longed for color to add that final but important touch of realism. So many tried and so many failed that color photography missteps became a long-standing late 19th century joke.

The first color photograph, “Tartan Ribbon,” was produced in 1861 but, like many other early techniques, failed to capture the entire spectrum.

That’s why hand tinting was the only way to go for decades, long after the color printing of graphics had been perfected. As the 1800s wore on, it spread beyond black-and-white photographs printed on tin to those on cardboard and glass. As late as the 1920s, French postcards and magazine photos were being hand colored with stencils – the postcards often garishly but the magazine photos so beautifully that they turned photos of decorated rooms into expensive fine art prints, thereby raising the status of interior designers.

Possibly the loveliest hand-tinted photos were done for the Japan tourist trade, from the 1870s on, especially those of geishas. In recent years a number of these pictures have been reproduced in books and as cards. There is also a new wave of hand colorists, trying to get a vintage look for photos used in their scrapbooking crafts.

The biggest problems with hand tinting were not only that their outcome depended so heavily on the colorist but that even skilled artisans were subjective in their choice of palette.

This was less true when it came to glass slides because the two big glass slide fields – travel and horticulture – demanded tonal accuracy. An American named Burton Holmes was renowned for his glass slide travelogues not only because of his photographic and oratorical abilities but because his recall of color was so precise. Even months after he returned from trips, he was able to tell his colorists the exact shade of each item on his black-and-white glass slides.

Accurately hand-colored glass slides were also instrumental in spreading gardening knowledge throughout the United States. The Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens has in its collection 3,000 colored glass slides donated by the Garden Club of America, almost 500 in its J. Horace McFarland Collection, and 5,000 in the Thomas A. Sears Collection, much of it available for viewing on the Internet.

The autochrome, probably the earliest viable form of color photography, excelled at botanical reproduction, too. In fact, one of its most enthusiastic proponents, Lionel de Rothschild, went on to become a major figure of the British horticultural scene and photographed gardens wherever he went. Another, Henry Essenhigh Corke, illustrated his books – like Wild Flowers As They Grow – with autochrome prints.
The autochrome, like hand tinting, also attracted travel photographers, most of them wealthy amateurs. The wealthiest of all may have been French businessman Albert Kahn who began his Archive of the Planet to document the world in autochrome. Today, the Paris museum that bears his name houses 72,000 autochromes that he commissioned.

Invented in 1894 by the Lumiere brothers – who also invented the movies in 1895 – the autochrome process was first publicly introduced in 1907. It combined millions of potato grains in three colors – red, blue, green – on a single glass plate. Light projected through this plate reached an emulsion, producing a positive transparency (more like the later color slide than like a film negative).

Its major drawback – like the color slide’s – was one of display since light had to be projected through the autochrome either by magic lantern or its own diascope viewer. Printing produced a graininess which was ideal for painterly-like photographic portraits of women or even photographs of women’s portraits (including Whistler’s Mother). But not everyone liked the Impressionistic effect.

And, although the autochrome camera was easy to use, its long exposure time required a tripod, cutting back on spontaneity. Autochrome plates were sold in a range of sizes but were much more expensive than black-and-white plates. However, when displayed in pairs, the autochrome could produce three-dimensional effects much like the stereograph’s.

In many ways the autochrome, with its three-colored dots, was more of a painter’s technique (think Georges Seurat). The photochrom, on the other hand, developed out of a printing technique, chromolithography.

A Swiss – and very secret – invention, the photochrom employed the same kind of Bavarian stones used in chromolithography. Coated with transparent ink and Syrian asphaltum (to make them chemically sensitive to light), these stones were put in contact with a black-and-white negative, then exposed to the sun for several hours. Technicians mixed the colored inks and could manipulate the positive image so the results, while gorgeous, were often somewhat subjective.

In 1897 American William A. Livingstone purchased the exclusive North American license and set up the Photochrom Company of Detroit which, under its parent publisher, Detroit Photographic Company, set the international standard for quality, especially for scenic and travel photos.

It would take the invention of the four-color process to finally make color photos available to all. Today, of course, we can not only print but adjust digital color photos on our home computers or at kiosks at box stores and pharmacies.