We’re so used to seeing the past in monochrome tones that sometimes you forget that colour itself wasn’t invented along with variegated television sets. In this latest effort from Taschen publications, the vibrancy of the past is recaptured and explored in a stirring American odyssey with the stunning collection of images and tales entitled America 1900.
As the tagline for the photobook regales: “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 colour photographs of the United States.”
During this period, the Detroit Publishing Company was the most significant North American photography establishment, sending its pioneers around the world to bring back their framed insights from far-flung lands. The gem in DPC’s crown was its exclusive patent of the photochrom process first invented in Switzerland in 1889, which enabled them to turn black and white negatives into colour proof images.
The images make use of then-pioneering technology to display Uncle Sam in all its kaleidoscopic hue. “Suddenly, the continent’s colours were available for all to see,” the book describes. “From the rich ochres and browns of the Grand Canyon to the dazzle of Atlantic City, these places were now a visual delight not only for eyewitnesses but for Americans far and wide.”
The images don’t just offer a new take on old pictures, their colourised brilliance provides something more spiritual. As the book explains: “Imbued with a sense of discovery and adventure, the pictures gathered here are a voyage through peoples, places, and time. They take us through North America’s vast and varied landscape, where we encounter its many communities, and above all transport us back to the United States of over a century ago.”
At the time these images were taken, America was still an expanding frontier with an influx of people infusing society with new philosophies and ideas in the hopeful land of the free. Within the images are sprawling Native American settlements, the bustle of New York’s booming Chinatown, and the final prevailing cowboys of Coney Island. The daring scope and remarkable backstory to the pictures, make it a thrilling adventure to follow, let alone a feast for the eyes.
120 years on, this incredible photographic voyage through the history of America also offers a prescient look at the fevered transitions of the nation’s past and proves that it is, as it always has been, a vibrant mixing bowl. In times when change is cautioned, the images are a pertinent reminder of the countries inherently vibrant and transitory identity.
You can find out more about the novel and get a copy of your own from Taschen publishing by clicking here.