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Phun with Photochromes*

April 24, 2009

Please indulge the ebullient tone in this post — the sun is shining and I just can’t contain myself.

Every once in a while, we should take a moment to look at a truly beautiful image.

Studio portrait of two Bedouin women with children on their backs. Photochrome of original image attributed to Maison Bonfils. Penn Museum image #166009

Studio portrait of two Bedouin women with children on their backs. Photochrome of original image attributed to Maison Bonfils. Penn Museum image #166009

There’s a lot to like about this image. The composition is effective, the subject compelling, colors vibrant and details delicate. But what in the world is going on with their skin color? And how is the color in the image accomplished anyway? Hand-painted? Color photography?

Nope, the process is much, much weirder, and explains both the jewel tones of landscape and dress and … off-ness of human tones.

This image was taken by the Maison Bonfils (previously discussed in this post, and extremely well-explained in this article). The negative was, in accordance of the technology of the day, a glass plate in black and white — the archives also holds a black and white albumen print of this image.

So how did we end up with a color image? The photochrome process was implemented by a firm in Zurich, by artists that had probably never been to Syria (hence the whack skin tones). The technique is a lot like a lithograph — to quote the wikigods,

A litho stone was coated with a thin layer of purified bitumen dissolved in benzene. A reversed half-tone negative was then pressed against this light-sensitive coating and an exposure in daylight made (taking from 10-30 minutes in summer, to several hours in winter). The bitumen hardened and became resistant to normal solvents in proportion to the light. The coating was then washed in turpentine solutions, removing the unhardened bitumen. It was then retouched in the tonal scale of the chosen color to strengthen or soften the tones as required. Each tint needed a separate stone bearing the appropriate retouched image, and prints were usually produced by at least six, and more commonly from 10 to 15 tint stones.

Fifteen tint stones. FIFTEEN TINT STONES. That’s completely astonishing. Dollars to donuts that we’ll see a hipster photochrome revival sometime soon.

Finally, a small aside, because I literally called my colleague a liar when he told me this amazing story — in 1970, protesters bombed the Harvard Semitic Museum to protest the war projects of the Center for International Affairs ONLY TO DISCOVER a hidden room in the museum that contained 28,000 photographic images, the world’s largest collection documenting the Levant. This collection had been untouched for nearly ninety years.***


*Naima and Colleen, our fabulous work-study students, only used “ph” for the /f/ phoneme** in their written work during the Phillies’ run-up to the World Series. This is in their honor.

**Yeah, that’s right, I just pulled out some IPA notation. That’s a labio-dental fricative.

***We think that our collection’s better. Just sayin’.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. jordon permalink
    April 25, 2009 5:47 am

    Great post. Awesome pic. Reminds me of the old Eastman coloring in the early days of color movies. They were at war with Technicolor, with the latter finally winning out. But Eastman color was always a little more interesting because it was a little more off.

  2. April 25, 2009 4:02 pm

    Amazing post! I’m really blown away by your analysis of the photo, the way you “dig deep” both technically and aesthetically. I’d never heard of that process, which ism indeed, devilishly complicated. The hand-painting technique was by far the most common; I had a great-aunt who specialized in the painting/colorizing, and the finished product looked much more like an oil painting than a photo. I have a really corny portrait of myself that she did, and it looks every bit like a Romantic era depiction of youthful innocence. It doesn’t have the sort of spooky aura that this one does, poised as it is in an odd liminal space between chemical photography and Photoshop.

  3. April 26, 2009 7:23 am

    Jordon — I’m really glad that you enjoyed it! It’s amazing how much color processes make a difference in the reception of the image. We’re in talks with a potential donor who had documented women’s dress in Pakistan in the 1970s — the slides she processed with Kodak color are beautiful, the reds vibrant and the spectrum more or less true. The duplicates she had made with Ektachrome look like HELL forty years later.

    Bob — thanks for your comments. I’m eager to do something of a more extended piece about how color processes relate to race, kinship, nationality, etc. in the European consciousness. Considering that the photochrome process was obviously meant to provide more of an impressionist depiction of the orient than a documentary statement (after all, this is a studio image), I wonder what the Maison Bonfils were trying to relate to their clients, and what the demand was at that time in the European imagination.

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