Historical Photographs in Color – Photochrom Prints From the Turn of the 20th Century

The Photochrom process, a method of transferring black and white photographic negatives to lithographic and chromographic printing stones, was invented in the 1880s in Switzerland by the Zürich-based printing firm Orell Füssli. In 1888 the firm created a new company, Photochrom Zürich (later renamed to Photoglob Co.), to handle worldwide distribution of Photochrom prints. In 1897, the Detroit Photographic Company, led by William A. Livingstone, obtained exclusive rights to print and distribute Photochrom prints in the United States. Livingstone hired the well-known photographer William Henry Jackson who brought with him thousands of his own negatives that would form the core of Detroit Photographic’s Photochrom catalog. The company continued producing Photochrom prints until the early 1930s, when cheaper production methods used by other photographic companies forced the company out of business.

The collection of prints produced by Detroit Photographic focused on showing the most interesting scenic, architectural and historical views from all over the United States–from urban city views (including New York, Washington and Chicago) to majestic natural scenes (including Yellowstone National Park and the Rocky Mountains), as well as the day-to-day life of people, from city street scenes to life in Native American pueblos in the southwest. Though the majority of Photochroms printed by Detroit Photographic were based on negatives by William Henry Jackson, exact attribution of the photographer is often not possible since the photographer was not identified on the print. Altogether, the collection of Photochrom prints produced by Detroit Photographic presents a unique portrait of the United States at the turn of the Twentieth Century.

Photochroms were produced by a color lithographic process whereby a thin layer of light-sensitive bitumen dissolved in benzene was applied to a lithographic stone. A photographic negative was then firmly applied to the stone, and when exposed to daylight (anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours depending on the time of year) the bitumen would harden, becoming insoluble to solvents like turpentine. The solvents could then be used to soak off the softer bitumen in proportion to the amount of light exposure the stone had received, leaving an image imprinted on the stone in bitumen. Ink would then be applied to the stone using standard lithographic procedures.

Each Photochrom image consisted of anywhere from four to fourteen different colors, where each color required a separate stone be prepared. Each stone would have to be retouched by the lithographer to fine-tune the tonal gradations for each color. When printed, the result was a color lithographic print that retained remarkable clarity and detail. In many cases the prints were virtually indistinguishable from normal photographic prints (apart from the addition of color), though when viewed through magnification the grain structure of the stones is apparent. Detroit Photographic’s catalog of Photochrom prints boasted that “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 water color.”

For a good visual explanation of the standard lithographic process, see the lithography section of the interactive demonstration of printmaking at the Museum of Modern Art.