People share nearly nine billion images daily on Instagram. In the entire year of 1905 the Detroit Publishing Company sold an estimated seven million Photochrom Postcards. Yes, the numbers have changed vastly, but our human impulse to share what we’ve seen with our friends remains a strong link to our ancestors. Not to mention, some of those beautifully colored, high-resolution Victorian Era Photochrom postcards are re-posted routinely on Social Media.
From the late 1800s postcards shifted from being simple tools for communication to highly coveted collectible items. Queen Victoria collected “visiting cards” and photographs that she placed in albums, launching a new scrapbooking craze. The practice became a status symbol among the privileged class. As it gained momentum, it also gave weight to an emerging photography culture.
Adding to the growing excitement for photography was the increase in tourism. Radical developments in transportation during the Industrial Revolution made travel easier, safer and faster. But for those Victorians who couldn’t or wouldn’t travel, dramatic improvements in photography brought spectacular images of the world to them. The Megalethoscope was like a Virtual Reality view master. For those who didn’t have access to one, the new color techniques for black and white photos offered a close second.
Photochrom was a process in which black-and-white photos were given vibrant, life-like colors with an almost three-dimensional quality. Swiss lithographer, Hans Jacob Schmid invented the intricate process, also known as the Aäc process, in the late 1880s. He worked for Orell Gessner Füssli, a Swiss printing company that dated back to the 16th century.
Tablets of lithographic limestone were coated with a light-sensitive emulsion, then exposed to sunlight for several hours under a photonegative. This hybrid of traditional photo development processes and stone lithography permitted mass production of color postcards, prints and albums. They soon became a commercial success.
The company licensed the process to the Photochrom Company of London and the Detroit Publishing Company (DPC) exclusively in the United States in the late 1890s. William A. Livingstone, Jr., a Detroit publisher and Edwin H. Husher a photographer and photo-publisher launched DPC. They published Victorian Era Photochrom postcards that they named Phostints for marketing purposes.
An extraordinary collection can be viewed at the Library of Congress.
The DPC 1901 catalog of photochrom prints described the process of color printing as:
“the only successful means yet known of producing directly without the aid of hand color work a photograph in the colors of nature. The results combine the truthfulness of a photograph with the color and richness of an oil painting or the delicate tinting of the most exquisite watercolor. The colors are absolutely permanent and attain the virility and strength of nature so often lacking in hand colored work. The prices are no more than those of ordinary photographs. The inventors have spent thousands of dollars and years of study before reaching their present success.”
Late in 1897, Livingstone persuaded William Henry Jackson, the famed American landscape photographer to join the firm. His body of work added an estimated 10,000 negatives to DPC’s inventory.
He was known for his documentation of the “Wild West” which until his photographs were released had been seen by only a few. He also photographed the scenes along railroads to the west and the resorts that were being built around popular tourist destinations. This contributed to the public’s growing appetite for travel, which was becoming a huge industry.
Jackson’s work was pivotal to the establishment of Yellowstone, the first National Park in the United States. Now people without the means to visit Yellowstone could finally picture it for themselves.
Since his photographs were all black and white, coloring them presented a challenge for DPC technicians. Imagine selecting the colors for an image of the Grand Canyon if you had never seen it. Fortunately, Jackson also had sketchbooks filled with colored paintings from his photographic journeys. These, along with painting by Thomas Moran from the famous Hayden Expedition, shaped DPC’s final products.
By 1905, DPC had a staff of roughly 40 people to meet the demand for new colorized postcards.
Along with the beautiful photographs of nature, Jackson’s work included subject matter from towns and cities. Photographers of the time were also documenting tenements and other neighborhoods. Many of these photographs were colorized as Photochrom Postcards.
How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York by Jacob August Riis was an early example of photojournalism, first published in 1890. This work opened the nation’s eyes to the impoverished conditions in mostly immigrant neighborhoods, often close to their own. Journalism of the day, including that of Nellie Bly for Pulitzer’s New York World Newspaper was supported and expanded by Riis’ work.
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