BC - Before Color Photography

How they put the sparkle in those shining eyes

The Painted Photograph, 1839-1914 Origins, Techniques, Aspirations

Heinz K. Henisch and Bridget A. Henisch

The Pennsylvania State

University Press

242 pp., $75

When photography was disclosed to the world in 1839, its astonishing fidelity to the observable world seemed flawed in one important respect. The medium did not record the various hues of nature, but did its documentation in black and white. Within photography's first decade, methods were devised to add color to the medium.

As its title indicates, "The Painted Photograph" surveys the theory and practice of 19th- and early 20th-century colored photography. In lesser hands, this study would be a listless tome, of interest only to specialists. But as they demonstrated in their 1994 book, "The Photographic Experience," Heinz and Bridget Henisch know how to harvest lively quotations and intriguing images.

The Henisches' search for incident and anecdote is rewarding. Who would not find it interesting to learn that the early photographs on metal, known as daguerreotypes, sometimes had tiny holes drilled into them where the sitter's eyes would be seen? These miniscule indentations formed small reflective cones which cast back light, making the sitter's eyes sparkle.

Yet, as much as 19th-century viewers desired photographs, they were hesitant to bury the photograph under layers of applied pigment. Especially on daguerreotypes, whose silvery surface manifests myriad details, light retouching was preferred to hiding the image under thick retouching.

Because paper photographs, unlike daguerreotypes, were produced from negatives, the opportunities for retouching were doubled. Photographers groaned that people who wanted to be photographed as nature made them were never satisfied with the unretouched result. Ironically, the colorists charged with providing lifelike portraits seldom saw the sitter in the flesh.

Manuals were produced instructing aspiring commercial photographers how to remove freckles, straighten the nose, and reduce the chin. An Illinois photography journal offered colorists a bit of general advice that was unprotected by the US Patent Office: Give the photographic print a generous lick with the tongue, the journal suggested, and "it will take the color splendidly."

As the photographic medium proliferated, so too did photographic coloring. Photographs on tin, milk glass, ceramics, and enamel were submitted to the colorist's brush. Perhaps the most successfully colored photographic medium was the commercially prepared lantern slide, whose subtle tints hinted at the yet-to-be manufactured quality of color film.

The ranks of professional and amateur colorists were largely stocked by women artists. Photography, which put up fewer barriers to participation than did painting, provided respectable, if low paying, studio jobs for women.

A common item in antique shops and flea markets today is the large pseudo-painting, created in the last decades of the 19th century. Various projection and enlarging techniques allowed colorists to create portraits the size of traditional paintings. Usually these portraits were enhanced with charcoal or pastel crayon, not deeply saturated pigments.

At the turn of the century, with more and more hack work flooding the market, the colored photograph fell into disrepute. Now, interestingly, painted photographs have made a comeback, not in studio practice, but in art photography.

*Mary Warner Marien teaches art history at Syracuse University in Ithaca, N.Y.

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