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An Introduction to Photochromes

The Pump Room, Buxton, Derbyshire in 1905 - see the same scene today

The Photochrome process was half photography and half an early form of printing. It produced vivid colour photographs around 50 years before colour photography was generally available, and allows us to have a glimpse back into the end of the 1800’s and early 1900's. Typically many of the British ones are around 1905.

The process was around in one form or another for over 50 years, but the colour Photochromes of most interest to us were produced for between 10-15 years, and in this time coloured Photochromes were taken throughout the world in large numbers.

We have made a collection of Photochromes of the whole of the British Isles including Ireland, and photographed and edited many of these to produce images that you could not otherwise get without a time machine.

So far we have identified and obtained copies of around 1,500 covering England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  We have very many of these as originals, and have been able to photograph them and edit the images using Photoshop. Nikon Capture NX2 does not work so well with these as they are not really photographs but a form of a work of art being reproduced. Our end result is a photograph nearly to today's standard of a scene over 100 years ago. The next best thing to a time machine. These can be printed larger than the originals.

A coach trip in the Lake District on the steam ferry

The printable images we produce are very large files, with a number of layers, but we also have smaller jpegs, that we produced at an earlier stage, before much of the editing off our larger files, and these we have made available to you in the Photo Archive, we have available online. They are organised by county for England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland with most counties have at least some.

Some we have several originals of, and this has allowed us to better see how they were produced and the variation to be found between them. We have not included duplicates in the archive.

Due to their age some have survived in better condition than others, and while we have some that an Ambassador had, and have been kept in museum conditions, appearing like new, others can have a lot of marks and need a lot of editing to produce a good image.

Originals are luckily not expensive, often you will find reproductions selling for more, making them an attractive area for the collector. This is probably because most people do not understand what they are. Few photographic history books have included them, considering them to be a printing rather than photographic process.

Postcard sized Photochromes can be very cheap, and are easy to find and available in far larger numbers, there are so many of these about that we have not attempted to collect all of them, but do have a small number that we thought were specifically interesting, but these have not been so far added to our archive.

There are also probably still quite a lot around, the American publishers, Detroit Publishing Company, produced up to 7 million copies in some years. They had between 10,000 and 30,000 different views available covering the world. Photochrome prints were sold at tourist sites and through mail order catalogues to globe trotters, armchair travellers, educators, and others to preserve in albums or put on display. Boxes that resemble a decorative bound book were also available to store large sets of images.

Traffic on London Bridge  - this London Bridge is now at London Bridge Arizona USA

We have a few overseas ones as well, mostly because they are special in some way, such as multi section editions that produce panoramas and the like. The overseas editions we have not added so far to our archive.

There is a story behind many of the images, be it a railway bridge that was later knocked down when a ship ran into it, local customs of the period or changes in the area. In addition to this, some we have used as the basis for Then and Now Photography  producing a comparable photo of the same scene today.

Most European Photochromes, including British ones, are 9 by 6.5 inches although some of other sizes, including multiple print width panoramas were produced, and were on paper sheets that could be produced by the Detroit Photographic Company in the US and the Photochrom Company of London amongst others. Some versions were produced larger including some for special book publication,s but these were mostly later, although some used far earlier negatives. Smaller postcards were also produced by the Photochrome process by these and other publishers and this continued until 1970, Monochrome black and white or brown and white prints were also produced by this method.

The American produced ones also varied in size, with a few much larger, and many being 3.75 by 7 inches.

Most of the 9x6.5inche Photochromes have a number and title stamped in gold on the lower left or right corners. Where there is a PZ between the number and title these were produced by the Swiss company, standing for Photochrom and Photoglob Zürich.

A French company also had a process to produce colour images they also called Photochrome, but this was a different process.

Mobile Bathing cubicles at Bognor
allowed the ladies having changed to get directly in the Sea

The Process and History

The process invented by a Swiss chemist Hans Jakob Schmid in the 1880's involved taking photographs in black and white, and making detailed notes on the colours within the scene, and then the negative being hand coloured.

Coloured gels (filters) were then used to project the image onto pieces of rock and the images etched, to produce a stone based printing tablet. Between 4 and 19 of these printing tablets (stones) were produced for a single picture and then used with up to 19 different coloured inks to print the image very tightly registered. A technique well advanced for a time when transport was by stage coach and new technology was a steam engine.

The chemical process was not complicated, a tablet of lithographic limestone, known as a "litho stone," is coated with a light sensitive coating, comprising of a thin layer of purified bitumen dissolved in benzene. A reversed half-tone negative is then pressed against the coating and exposed to daylight for a period of 10–30 minutes in summer, up to several hours in winter. The image on the negative allows varying amounts of light to fall on different areas of the coating, causing the bitumen to harden and become resistant to normal solvents in proportion to the amount of light that falls on it. The coating is then washed in turpentine solutions to remove the unhardened bitumen and retouched in the tonal scale of the chosen colour to strengthen or soften the tones as required. Each tint is applied using a separate stone bearing the appropriate retouched image. The finished print is produced using usually at least six, but more commonly from 10 to 15, and up to 19 tint stones.

If you look at a Photochrome with a magnifying glass then small coloured dots showing the grain of the stone used can be seen.

Hans worked for the Swiss company Orell Gessner Füssli, a printing firm with a history extending back into the 16th century. Füssli founded the stock company Photochrom Zürich later renamed to Photoglob as the business vehicle for the commercial exploitation of this process and both Füssli and Photoglob continue to exist today. From the mid 1890s the process was licensed by them to other companies including the two mentioned above, who were really a part of the same business.

 Rail bridge at Sharpness on the River Severn
It was knocked down by a boat and not rebuilt, nothing of the bridge remains but when the tide is out the boat can be seen in the mud, in the centre of the river.

Getting your hands on copies

Copies of scans are also available online:-

  • In our Photo Archive, we think this is the largest collection of images relating to the British Isles and Ireland. As we have it organised by counties and a map, they are easier to find.

  • In the USA library of congress public domain section, their search shows 6,431 available online, images are public domain and unmarked, available in more sizes and includes a choice of large tiffs.

  • The Zurich central library have digitalised and made available online 3,700 of the 11,000 they have, and although part of their index is in English, and if you put "photochrom" as spelt here in their top search box it brings them up. Images have 4 large grey Z's over the image and they claim rights to these images.

  • Wikipedia has a collection of nearly a thousand Photochromes online at their classification Photochrom  pictures   UK photochromes.

  • Denver Library has several hundred online.

  • Henry Ford Museum has a multi-slide set show on the Detroit Publishing Company online.

  • The Curt Teich Postcard Archives, part of the Lake County Discovery Museum has 365,000 postcards  under 2,100 headings, but not all are Photochromes. The individual cards don't appear to be online, however Illinois Digital Archives  has some of their images and on the bottom of the postcard archive page it has links to a few more sources.

In all cases except our archive, I suspect its a mixture of the Photochrome sizes and Photochrome postcards. 

When time permits I intend to produce a comparison listing showing which UK prints are on which resources.

Buying Originals

  • Antique outlets that sell pictures and maps.

  • eBay postcard and photographic prints sections.

London traffic at Holborn - you wait for a bus and then two comes along at once!

See also:


By: Keith Park Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: introduction_to_photochromes Topic: Photography    Last Updated: 08/2010

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