Pictures of mountains played a major role in the photochrome images.
Pictures of mountains played a major role in the photochrome images. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Belle Époque in colour

Colour pictures for everyone! That was the idea behind the photochrome process, which was devised in Zurich in the late 19th century – and quickly took over the world.

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.

For a long time, mainstream popular images were of little interest to cultural and fine arts studies in the 20th century. It was no different at Zurich’s main library, the Zentralbibliothek Zürich. In 1974, Bruno Weber, the then head of the Graphic Collection, came across a collection of coloured prints featuring images from all over the world in the bottom drawer of a storage cabinet. Excited by this chance find, he set to work on researching and indexing the pictures. The images have now been digitalised, and are among the library’s most requested holdings. And what’s more, the Zentralbibliothek Zürich has one of the world’s largest collections of photochrome prints dating from the Belle Époque. The collection contains 10,000 images and is accessible online.
Jochen Hesse, head of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’s Graphic Collection, with the assemblage of photochrome pictures.
Jochen Hesse, head of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’s Graphic Collection, with the assemblage of photochrome pictures. Dominik Landwehr
Oddities, such as this milk cart with dogs in Belgium, were also depicted.
Oddities, such as this milk cart with dogs in Belgium, were also depicted. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Focus on tourists

The photochromes show the world at the turn of the century, a period also known as the Belle Époque, in vibrant colours. The bulk of the images depict views of touristic value, including pictures of the Alps, classic city panoramas, views from far-distant countries and pictures of exotic ethnic groups from places like the Caucasus and North Africa. There’s also the odd erotic image, mainly from the Orient. A smaller group consists of reproductions of popular works of art, such as Rudolf Koller’s Gotthard Post. The social reality of the Belle Époque, with its wars, mass poverty and misery, was ‘airbrushed’ out of history in these photochrome prints. Instead they depict an ideal, and thus represent the ‘psychogram’ of an era. The photochrome prints were sold in a range of sizes around the turn of the century, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. Nonetheless, the images have enormous cultural and historical value: for example, we see a group of mountaineers crossing a glacier – with the rudimentary equipment that was available at the time. Numerous views of buildings give an insight into the architecture of this period: from the inn on the Uetliberg to the legendary Mulberry Street in Manhattan, New York, also known as Little Italy. Another interesting subject is depicted in an image from Belgium, showing two dogs pulling a milk cart. In the early 20th century dogs were in fact still used as draught animals in many places – including Switzerland.
Photochrome image of Zurich.
Photochrome image of Jerusalem.
Touristy views of cities such as Zurich and Jerusalem were very popular during the Belle Époque. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Black and white as a basis

The vibrant photochrome pictures were produced not from colour photos, but from black and white originals. The method is a lithographic printing process that was developed in the 1880s by Zurich lithographer Hans Jakob Schmid (1856-1924). The negative was applied to a light-sensitive layer on the stone, and a new stone had to be exposed for each colour to be printed. The negatives for the individual colours were laboriously prepared by hand. Some images use just a few colours, while others require up to 12 steps. The Zurich company Photochrom, a subsidiary of the Orell Füssli printing business, developed the process to the stage of commercial viability, and began selling prints in 1889. In 1895 the company was renamed Photoglob Zurich, and in 2014 it celebrated its 125th anniversary. The photochrome process also caught on in the United States, where Photoglob founded the Detroit Photographic Company in 1898. The colours used sprang from the imagination of the printer – in many cases, such as the popular views of Venice, they drew on existing publications.
Photochrome image of Venice.
Venice was a dream destination for many during the Belle Époque. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
Photochrome image of Chicago.
Maritime illustrations were also hugely popular. This picture shows inland shipping on the Chicago River. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Errors and manipulations

From time to time the designers made mistakes in the colouration. But it takes a trained eye to detect these errors. In addition, many of the views were manipulated. People were added to townscapes, or buildings were moved in order to give a better effect. That doesn’t detract from the viewing experience. On the contrary; you catch yourself smiling again and again each time you notice it. How did the printers get their information about the colours? It was based on relevant sources. The views of cities such as Venice were sufficiently well documented at that time that the designers could rely on them. In other instances, they resorted to their own imagination. This can become tedious, as the colouring always ranges within the same stereotypical spectrum. The boom in vibrantly coloured photochrome images came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War I. The Zurich company Photoglob switched its business activity to selling postcards, and better methods of colour printing soon became available.
Stadtansicht von Innsbruck.
City view of Innsbruck. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
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Die ägyptischen Pyramiden.
The Egyptian pyramids. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
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Die Bergwelt war ein beliebtes Motiv.
Mountain landscapes were a popular subject. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
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Photochrom-Bilder eigneten sich auch für die Reproduktion von berühmten Gemälden wie hier der Gotthardpost von Rudolf Koller aus dem Jahr 1873.
Photochrome was also a suitable medium for reproducing famous paintings, such as Rudolf Koller’s Gotthard Post from 1873. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
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Auch die Eisenbahn war ein beliebtes Motiv.
The railways were another popular subject. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
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Further posts

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