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Hand-colored photographs

By Tess Colwell

Posted on December 19, 2018

[Girl Seated Wearing Bow-Trimmed Dress], circa 1865, V1978.174.66; Ramus family papers and photographs, 1978.174; Brooklyn Historical Society.

For the next several weeks, we are revisiting some of our favorite photos of the week. We hope you enjoy looking back with us as we prepare new posts for the New Year.

The photo of the week is a portrait of an unknown girl, sometime around 1865. This photograph is possibly an example of hand-colored photography, which was the most popular and effective way to create color photographs until color film was introduced in the mid-20th century.

Hand-colored photographs were created in an attempt to make monochromatic photographs more realistic. Johan Baptist Isenring, a Swiss painter, is credited to having produced one of the earliest examples of hand-colored daguerreotypes by using gum arabic and pigments. Paper photographs (like the cartes-de-visite pictured above) were colored using oils, water colors, pastels, or aniline colors. Hand-colored photographs were considered a status symbol, and nearly every photography studio offered a color option as the demand increased in the mid-19th century.

Hand-colored photographs are particularly charming to me because there is an artistic quality to each photograph. In this photograph, there is detail and care in the shading of the skin tone, cheeks and hair. There are varying degrees of detail and shading in hand-colored photographs depending on the skill and interpretation of the artist. It’s hard to say exactly when this photograph was colored. The pink bow has streaking which could hint at a different coloring technique than the skin and hair. It’s also possible that the coloring was done much later than when the photograph was originally taken.

This photograph comes from the Ramus family papers and photographs collection. This collection contains papers and photographs pertaining to the Ramus family of Brooklyn. Isaac Ramus and his wife Esther Baruth immigrated from London and lived at 214 Dean Street in Brooklyn. The majority of photographs and documents in this collection pertain to members of the Ramus family, and span the period 1848 to 1910. To view more photographs from this collection, check out this gallery.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. [email protected]

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