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12 forgotten hand-colored images of life in the 1800s

By Joseph Flaherty, WIRED
updated 8:20 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
Clear Creek Canyon, Georgetown Loop, Colorado. Clear Creek Canyon, Georgetown Loop, Colorado.
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Instagram in the 1800s
Instagram in the 1800s
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Photocroms were the functional equivalent of Instagram in 1888
  • They were produced using emerging photographic techniques and paint
  • Some of the images feature the Great Lakes, Old South, Wild West, and Pacific coast
  • A collection of Photocroms have been published for the first time in a new volume

(CNN) -- Instagram is a decidedly modern invention, but back in your great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents' day, "Photochroms" were the functional equivalent. Photochroms combined emerging photographic technology and the painterly techniques of the old masters to provide technicolor glimpses of the Great Lakes, Old South, Wild West, and Pacific coast.

These dreamlike vistas have been collected for the first time in a volume called An American Odyssey by Marc Walter and Sabine Arqué. The oversize, $200 book is a sampling of the 100,000 Photochroms created by the Detroit Photographic Company between the company's formation in 1888 and its closure in 1924.

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The Photochrom Process

Photochrom photographers would start the process by coating a printing plate with a light-sensitive emulsion and then exposing a glass plate photo negative onto it.

Unlike modern four-color printing process that can represent millions of colors by overlapping tiny dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink, the inks mixed for Photochroms were mixed by hand in an attempt to perfectly match the yellow-green sunblasted scrub brush that surrounds the Grand Canyon or the aquamarine ocean water of the Bahamas.

The photographers would erase the entire plate except for the area reserved for that specific color and make 10-15 more plates to fill out the composition. Photographic details were preserved, but an emotive, if slightly artificial, range of color was added.

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The Detroit Photographic Company toured large Photochroms on trains and the U.S. Government supercharged their spread by passing a law that allowed Photochromic postcards to be sent for a penny, rather than the going rate of two cents.

Like the locomotives of that era, labor-intensive Photochroms lost steam as the first color film debuted in 1907, and Kodak made color snapshots widely available with the release of Kodachrome cameras in 1935. However, as a testament to the charm of the technique, the last Photochrom factory didn't close its doors until 1970.

The cover of 'An American Odyssey' by Marc Walter and Sabine Arqué
Marc Walter/Courtesy Taschen

An American Odyssey is available from Taschen.

Read more from WIRED:

30 Years After Chernobyl's Meltdown, Gripping Photos Expose the Human Fallout

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Copyright 2011 Wired.com.

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