Project Development – Before Colour Photography

On completion of the ‘Hand and Eye’ theme this week I decided that I wanted to know about the history of colour photography. And in doing so I discovered that before the full colour photograph was created, the only solution for people was to print their images then add colour on top. Whether this is by using a brush, oil, watercolour paints or ground powdered pigments. This was especially used in family albums. Skilled painters would paint the image to suggest pertinent aspects of the sitter’s character through colour. Changing the representation to make it more realistic and allowing them of to show the scene as they actually saw it.

This was a major artistic and social phenomenon and hand colouring was used by many photographers at that time. However, this practice received some crtitisim. An 1859 instructional work on coloring photographs states that, “Coloured photographs occupy an undeservedly questionable situation: the artist curls his lips at them, and the photographer regards them with a sneer. The one says they are no painting, the other that they are no photograph; thus the art of photographic coloring, unrecognized by either, must seek consolation in the fact that it is embraced none the less eagerly by both.”

Some would even create readily coloured and decorated album pages in which to paste family photographs into. As shown in the image below by Catherine Mary Wood:


By the 1860s, hand-coloured photographs were a well respected and very popular art form in Japan. This shown in the work of Felice Beato below.. He tinted his photographs to add realism. But I will talk about the work of Felice Beato in the coming week on this blog. This is one of his images:

Felice Beato

Felice Beato

This technique has been used in historic times as they didn’t have colour photography. But in modern day this practice has had a renaissance as artists are using this practice of hand colouring their photographs to add to their naturalism and to give them a more hand crafted effect. And I would like to do this same thing within my own work, but perhaps looking at more modern ways of colouring also to create a different, unique effect which reflects modern day.

Roberts, P. (2007) ‘A century of colour photography: from the autochrome to the digital age’. London: Andre Deutsch


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