Before we get further into the New Year I thought that I should mention that, based on all of the feedback that I have received from readers, the clear favorite of everyone is not Ansel Adams “Moonrise,” but Edward Steichen’s “Flatiron Building, 1904.” When choosing this image I very carefully sought out one of the colored ones as a opposed to the straight black and whites or the sepia toned ones. Take a look at each of these variations by clicking on the hyperlinks. I suspect that you will agree with my selection.
When I first saw these bichromate gum colored versions, I thought that they were true color photographs. But the fact is that 1904 predates the first true color photographs by three years. Rather they are part of a long tradition of hand-colored photographs. As early as daguerreotypes you can find examples of beautiful hand coloration.
While experimentation with color photography dates back into the nineteenth century. The first practical and commercial color process was Autochrome. This is an amazingly clever process, which really deserves a blog of its own. There was a recent exhibit of autochromes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City..
From an aesthetic perspective, I think that colorization adds to the mood of Steichen’s image of the Flatiron building. It creates a dramatic sense of mystery. There is a light level or moment at night when your photopic (color sensitive) vision starts to fail you and your scotopic (black and white) vision takes over. At that point you are not quite clear whether you are seeing color or not. I think that the hand coloring achieves the sense of that moment.
Also, I think it profound that just as we demand and devour the latest technical advances, people of Steichen’s time felt that the spectral dimension of the image was missing. And they needed it. They developed hand coloration to an art form, in and of itself, and they pushed their technical innovators towards the solving of a very hard nut crack, how to go beyond the limitations of the silver halide monochrome process to create true and pleasing polychrome.