Rediscovering the first color photographs of the New World
An American Odyssey
These rediscovered Photochrom and Photostint postcard images from the private collection of Marc Walter were produced by the Detroit Photographic Company between 1888 and 1924. Using a photolithographic process that predated the autochrome by nearly 20 years, they offered people the very first color photographs of The United States. Suddenly, the continent's colors were available for all to see. The rich ochres and browns of the Grand Canyon, the dazzle of Atlantic City, became a visual delight not only for eyewitnesses, but for Americans far and wide.
Imbued with this sense of discovery and adventure, the pictures gathered here are a voyage through peoples, places and time at once. They take us through North America’s vast and varied landscape, encounter its many communities, and above all transport us back to the New World of over a century ago. Over more than 600 pages including fold-out spreads, this sweeping panorama takes us from Native American settlements to New York's Chinatown, from some of the last cowboys to Coney Island's heyday. As luminous now as they were some 120 years ago, these rare and remarkable images that brought America to Americans now bring American's past to our present.
Graphic designer, photographer and collector Marc Walter specializes in vintage travel photographs, particularly photochroms, of which he has one of the world’s largest collections. He has published numerous books featuring images from his collection as well as his own photographs.
Sabine Arquéis a documentarian, photo researcher and author. She has collaborated on numerous publications on the themes of travel, the history of tourism and photography.
1. What exactly is a photochrom?
A photochrom is a color proof obtained by transferring a black and white photographic negative on numerous lithographic stones: one for each final wanted color. This was done using a specific new process, “the Photochrom process”, invented in 1889 by the Swiss Hans Jakob Schmidt, chief lithographer at the Orell Füssli printworks in Zurich.
2. Can you explain the Photochrom process?
The Photochrom process allowed a color proof to be obtained from a black-and-white negative. It is a planographic method of reproduction : each color required the use of a different lithographic stones and therefore a minimum of four: red, blue, yellow, and black. The stone was coated with transparent ink, which was then transferred to photographic printing paper.
3. Can you explain the commercial success of photochroms at the time where they first appeared?
Nearly 20 years before the invention of color photography (the autochrome, 1905), the photochroms were the first “nature colored” images. The great novelty of this process is that it allowed the production in series and was adapted to the modernity of the time: the photochroms were sold on tourist areas and conditioned in many different ways: by piece or by lots, in albums that you could order; the process was also used for printing postcards which sold in numbers, especially in America: the “Phostint” postcards were produced by millions.
4. How does the photochrom come to America?
The Photochrom process was transmitted to the Detroit Photographic Company by a technician who had worked for the Swiss company, Albert Schuler, in 1895–96. In the United States, it was marketed under the name of the “Aäc color photography process.”
5. Were the photochroms colored by hand?
No, they were not: the lithographic stones were inked with colors. The engravers were marvellous technicians and their work is phenomenal. They worked to restitute the true colors of their subjects by inking as many different stones as necessary to restitute the colors of nature, clothes, buildings, etc. If you examine a photochrom through a magnifying glass, you realize that it often consists of more than 10 ink colors. In some cases, as many as 14 different tinted stones were used.
6. When were the photochroms made?
The American photochroms reproduced in this book were all made between 1895 and 1910. The ones reproduced here are original ones belonging to Marc Walter’s collection.
However the black-and-white negatives used to print these photochroms often date from much earlier, as early as the years 1870 for many of them.
“…almost as epic as its source material, with more than 600 pages packed with beautiful shots from the US’s formative period.”
— Shortlist, London
“Even then, New York was a tale of two cities, the authors write, ‘paradise or inferno, gate of the New World, and a symbol of liberty and hope.”
— New York Times, New York
“…an extraordinary voyage through the past – you will never see the United States in the same way again.”
— The Lady, London
“…a moving look back at a new nation teetering on the brink of modernity.”
— ELLE Décor, New York
“At the end of the book, you have the sense of having traveled the country into another, invisible time.”
— Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles
“At 15.7 pounds and 600 pages, this is the heftiest and most pored-over book on our coffee table… the nationwide swath of scenery is breathtaking, shot when the West was Wild and the times were woolly.”
— American Photo, New York
“This is a truly extraordinary book from TASCHEN… the images are as luminous now as they were over a century ago. A must-buy.”
— AURA, Bury St Edmunds
“…a spectacular, century-old tapestry of the United States that unfurls, page by page, like a lost scroll of some of our nation’s earliest visual treasures.”
— American Profile, Nashville
“I found many of the images truly beautiful, often awe-inspiring… Hours can pass simply reading store signs, or poring over faces among the masses on tenement-lined streets… An American Odyssey is a celebration of the North American continent made exceptional by its scope.”
— South China Morning Post, Hong Kong
“From the buzz of New York City to the expansive canyons of Arizona, the collection provides a fascinating glimpse into America’s past, in all its vibrancy.”