“With colour one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft.”
Back in those days, if you didn’t think photography was art but you thought painting was, where did you put hand painted photographs? Probably nowhere; any compromises would have offended purists, were ignored and left for a future generation to decide upon. But hand painting of photographs is one of the few elements of photography that can be considered a tradition. The earliest efforts date back to the daguerreotype process at the very beginning and the concept was carried on for another century until colour photography became practical and cheap enough to make it redundant. It didn’t die. Today we are certain where the people applying paint or ink to photographs stand. They are artists; they wouldn’t do it otherwise.
The questions that faced people applying colour to photographs were usually more basic than anything to do with art. One was how much to use. Have a look at the online exhibition of 19th century hand painted photographs at Luminous Lint. There are a few examples that could fool you into thinking the colour came from the photographic process. Often though a tint of pink in the sitter’s cheeks or a splash of colour in the clothing was enough to lift the portrait. Whether it always worked is a matter of judgement. Sometimes the photograph ceased to be a portrait per se but became a curiosity, like the family portrait in the gallery where the boy’s red bow tie dominates the image so loudly that you barely see anything else. Technically speaking, it fails but it makes its case as an example of the strange paths photography could take.
Unless steps were taken to protect the original print by laminating it, applying paints or inks interfered with the chemical processes. This could change the colours so that what we are looking at today is no longer the original. Obviously, when customers returned to the studio and collected their print they weren’t looking at some evocation of another age, but what did they see that we do now? It’s a small but critical issue when dealing with coloured photographs because they influence so much of our perception of the past.. When some colour film footage of the Second World War was unearthed and released to the public about fifteen years ago, the people behind the release were at pains to assure viewers the scenes were genuine and hadn’t been manipulated. As it happens, the fragile stock had faded. Some of it looks, well, hand coloured. Think of the number of times the early 20th century is evoked in films through washed out pastel colours. What we are looking at isn’t so much a representation of the past but nostalgia for it.
The best hand colourists rendered their work to be as natural as possible but there was never any hint of deception. Everyone understood that what they were looking at was merely an impression but it is also true that with a really good hand coloured photograph it is hard to imagine the original black and white could be more interesting or superior in any way.
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