From Black and White to Color with Photochrome

A Sami family in Norway before a conical tent called a lavvu around 1900, from the Library of Congress. The Sami traditionally hail from northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and adjacent parts of Russia.

The Library of Congress provides a digitized archive of almost 6,000 Photochrome prints. I’ve browsed through hundreds of these types of images over the years and always assumed they were either hand-colored or early examples of color photography. Turns out, they’re neither. They were colorized from black and white negatives using a type of Lithographic printing known as Photochrome (also Photochrom).

In traditional Lithography, an artist created an image on a plate of smooth limestone through a process of chemical etching. He applied ink, which adhered to the part that wasn’t etched, then pressed the stone against a blank sheet of paper to reproduce the image.

In the 1880s, Swiss chemist Hans Jakob Schmid invented a process that transferred the image from a black and white photographic negative onto a series of up to 15 limestone plates. Using chemicals and various development techniques, Schmid insured each limestone plate carried a different color of the desired image. He then produced a finished print by using all the plates in the standard lithographic process.

Photochrome reached peak popularity over the next few decades, with Europeans and Americans especially fond of mailing postcards with scenes of cities and landscapes. At one penny in the United States, a postcard’s postage was half that of a regular letter’s. By the 1920s, cheaper printing methods reduced photochrome’s popularity, which receded into niche territory as true color photography gained ground in the 1930s.

Besides the archive at the Library of Congress, an even larger selection of some 10,000 digitized photochrome prints is available through the Central Library of Zurich. Wiki Commons provides access to the collection, as well.

A Flemish milk seller in Antwerp, Belgium, sometime between 1890 and 1900. Photo from the Library of Congress collection.
The Arc de Triomphe in Paris sometime between 1890 and 1900, now site of the world’s most treacherous roundabout. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Old Town Warsaw, Poland, in happy times. The Germans firebombed the city 40 years later during the opening days of World War II. Image from Library of Congress.
A photochrome snapshot of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans in 1900, downloaded from Wikipedia Commons. Around this time, the city converted its streetcars from mule power to electricity, the first of the new lines running along this street.
Broadway in New York City around 1900, from the Library of Congress.
Bedouins and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Photochrome from the Library of Congress.
Unter den Linden in Berlin, Germany, between 1890 and 1900. Courtesy Library of Congress.
The Tower Bridge in London, England, between 1890 and 1905. Image from the Library of Congress.
St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice sometime between 1890 and 1900, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Works Cited

“An Introduction to Photochromes” from photographers-resource.co.uk.

Gable, Gene. “Scanning Around With Gene: The Miracle of Photochrome.”

“Photochromes: Explaining how they were produced” from photographers-resource.co.uk.

“Color photography” article in Wikipedia.

“Lithography” article in Wikipedia.

“Photochrom” article in Wikipedia.

Sami People.” Wikipedia.

“Tints and Shades” article in Wikipedia.

Categories: people, places, things

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