Photochrome prints

While working on the pages about the history of printing, I stumbled across the invention of the ‘Aäc process’ around 1880. This technique was used to create photochrom or photochrome prints, a type of color prints that were very popular around 1900.

old postcard of the Gizeh pyramids near Cairo
Fellahs and the piramids in Cairo -Egypt
Old postcard of girls selling milk
Milk sellers with a dog cart near Brussels – Belgium

The photochrome process was mainly used to print postcards. I find these old cards oddly compelling. They depict a world that has long gone in colors that are realistic but at the same time slightly ‘off’.

Old postcard showing Dutch windmills
Two windmills – Holland

The photochrom process

Photochroms are not photographs but actual prints, produced using 6 to 15 colors and the lithography printing process. The technique was invented by the Swiss Hans Jakob Schmid during the 1880s.

Old postcard of castle Neuschwanstein
Castle Neuschwanstein in Beiern – Germany

The fascinating aspect of these prints is that they are created from black and white photographs. Below is an example, with the original photo to the left and the print to the right.

It required quite some work and talent to create these images. The photographer would usually make notes about the colors in the image he shot. These enabled a painter to create a painting that served as a color guide for the litho stone maker. This artisan would then create multiple exposures of the original black-and-white negative, changing the exposure time, development settings, and using dodge and burn techniques to create the required set of 6 to 15 stones that would each be used to print one specific color. By combining all these colors you get the prints shown on this page.

Old postcard of a hotel in Hardanger Fjord
Stalheim Hotel in Hardanger Fjord – Norway

Three printing companies were licensed to use this process. The Swiss company Orell Gessner Füssli was the employer of Hans Jakob Schmid, who invented the process. In the USA the Detroit Photographic Company printed up to 7 million Photochrom printers per year. The third licensee was the Photochrom Company of London.

Old postcard of the statue of liberty
The Statue of Liberty in New York, USA

The photochrom process was most popular in the 1890s, when true color photography was first developed but not yet commercially viable.

Old postcard of a hotel in the Swiss mountains
The Faulhorn hotel in Bernese Oberland – Switzerland

Initially photochrom prints of cities and landscapes were the most popular. After the first World War the process was mainly used for posters and art reproductions.

Old postcard of Paris
The ‘Exposition Universelle 1900’ in Paris – France

In the 1920s cheaper printing methods came to market and the photochrome process lost its appeal. The last photochrom printer operated up to 1970.

Old postcard of the Selkirk Mountains
Illecillewaet Glacier in the Selkirk Mountains – Canada

More old historic photos

There are large collections of photochrom prints on the web. The biggest gallery can be found on the web site of the US Library of Congress. You can view a selection of their images on Wikimedia. This blog shows an interesting selection of images.

Old postcard of a steamship
The Lydia – England

Below is my selection of images from this library that attracted me, either because they are of places I have been to or because of their interesting composition or color:

Old postcard of English cottages
Penshurst Place in Tunbridge Wells – England

Other sources of information

Wikipedia obviously has a page on photochrom but a far more interesting read is The Miracle of Photochrom written by Gene Gable.

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