Hand-Tinted Photography – How It Was Forgotten
By Pratik Roy Choudhuri

Photography has come a long way since its inception in 1839. The DSLR-toting generation of today would perhaps find it difficult to imagine the hard work that went into producing a finished photograph all the way up until the 20th century.

Photography has always been the art of documentation, and for this reason, people have strived to make images as realistic as possible. This was the motivation behind the invention of a technique known as hand-coloring, easily described as the hand-tinting of black-and-white photographs. In other words, hand-coloring refers to any method in which color is manually added to a black-and-white photograph. It is sometimes done purely for artistic purposes.

A brief history: Until the middle of the 20th century, photographs were majorly monochrome. Johann Baptist Isenring is credited with being the first person to have used a mixture of gum Arabic and pigments to add color to monochrome photographs. Adding colored powder to photos by applying heat was only one of many efforts made during that era in an attempt to produce colored photographic images; one such technique used was electroplating.

By the 1860s, artists such as Yokohama Matsusaburo, a Japanese painter, lithographer, and photographer, had begun making hand-colored photographs, now a well-respected and popular art form. Hand-coloring had become extremely popular among portrait studios, commercial photographers, and photo artists for the effect of realism that it provided.

The first half of the 20th century saw the art form reach the zenith of its popularity with the help of artists like Wallace Nutting. Then came stable color films and color prints in the 1950s; quite predictably, hand coloring fell out of favor, and full-color photographic images took over.

Ever since the 1980s, various photo artists have attempted to revive the lost art. Andy Warhol created hand-colored lithographs and hosted coloring parties where friends could hand-color his books. More recently, Wayne Youle, a contemporary artist, hand colored the photographs of the famous documentary photographer, Ans Westra. Hand-colored photographs continue to have an extensive presence around us, in cafes, print ads, music videos, etc. Tragically, the effects are most often created by various image-manipulation Softwares, something that is heavily criticized by the community of professional traditional colorists.

Although the coloring legacy has existed for over a 170 years now, very little has been recorded, written and analyzed, until now. Despite a lot of exhibitions featuring samples of hand-colored photographs, very few of them have given it an exclusive or even substantive focus. Nonetheless, even with the gargantuan popularity and omnipresence of digital photography, hand-coloring is still an enduring art practiced by many, largely due to its permanence and art aesthetics. This constant and pervasive presence might be its biggest achievement.

 

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