Venice still rules in Photochrom postcards

In the 1890s, when true colour photography was first developed but was still commercially impractical, hand-tinted photographs gave pictures a much needed boost of colour. Of all techniques, Photochrom was the most popular. The era of hand-painted photographs went hand in hand with the advent of picture postcards where the image was a souvenir. The first of these was sent from Vienna in 1871 and from then on, mass production really took off to blossom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Some of the best picture postcards of the time are no doubt of Belle Époque Venice. Printed by the Detroit Publishing Company in the US in the 1890s, they remain the gold standard of the Photochrom printing technique. The American photographic publishing firm acquired rights to the Swiss-invented Photochrom and went on to make a killing from its colour postcards. The boom lasted up until World War I when the war economy and the competition from cheaper printing methods put an end to it.

Invented in the 1880s by Hans Jakob Schmid, an employee of a Swiss printing company, Photochrom was a time-consuming and closely guarded process, in which layers of artificial colour were applied to black-and-white photographs and reproduced. The technique would require the photographer to take detailed notes of the colours present when the picture was being taken. The negatives would then be hand-coloured using limestone printing stones to reapply different colours to the image.

The process began with coating a tablet of lithographic limestone with a light-sensitive emulsion, then exposing it to sunlight under a photo negative for up to several hours. The emulsion would harden in proportion to the level of exposure and the less hardened portions were removed with a solvent, forming a fixed lithographic image on the stone. Successive litho stones were prepared for each tint in the image. A single Photochrom postcard might require over a dozen different tint stones.

Though the process was lengthy and painstaking back in Schmid’s day, the end result was surprisingly life-like. From a distance, Photochrom prints look deceptively like modern colour photographs. The ingenious transfer of a black-and-white negative onto multiple lithographic printing plates would bring the famous Venetian landmarks – the Grand Canal or the Rialto – to life while also shedding a different light on what the city of Venice looked and felt like in the late 19th and early 20th century.