Sunday, December 09, 2012

photochroms -- Tunisia -- 1899

At the turn of the twentieth century the Detroit Photography Company sent its operatives to exotic locales to shoot black & white negatives that it could manipulate by a process called photochrom to make full color prints. The process was exacting, slow, meticulous, and its results could be breathtaking, or maybe banal, or even ghastly. The skill of the photographer mattered, but the success of the color print depended more on the skill of the artisans creating the intermediates by which the photochroms were worked up.

Much also depended on the availability of detailed information about the original coloration of the scene that was photographed. The man behind the camera had to name the colors present in his subject, record them accurately, and give enough context so that production workers could recreate what the photographer saw. On occasions when they lacked sufficient information the workers used their own judgment and sometimes, no matter what the photographer wrote, they gave color values and shadings that seemed right to them. Frequently they worked from hand-colored versions of black and white prints and the artists who did the coloring might themselves use artistic license to make what seemed to them to be an appealing result.[1]

The photochroms themselves could be mass-printed as inexpensive postcards (and in that time of penny-stamped cards millions of them were) or they could be produced as large high-resolution prints.

The photos which follow come from a Library of Congress collection of high-quality prints that the Detroit Publishing Co. produced in or near 1899. They show places and people in Tunisia.[2] Apart from the brief notes accompanying them there's nothing that can be found out them. A publisher's catalog calls them "Views of Architecture and People in Tunisia." I believe the absence of narrative takes little away from the prints. See if you agree. As usual, click an image to view full size and then hit the escape key to return to the blog post.

{Caption: Types of Arabs, Tunis, Tunisia}

{A mosque in the principal street, Kairwan, Tunisia}

{Moorish cafe, Tunis, Tunisia}

{Outside a Moorish cafe, Tunis, Tunisia}

Details of this image:



{Group before Bab Aleona, Tunis, Tunisia}

{Group of wandering Arabs, Tunis, Tunisia}

{Tresure Street, Tunis, Tunisia}

{Market, Kairwan, Tunisia}

{A street, Kairwan, Tunisia}

{A street, Kairwan, Tunisia}

{A traveling cook, Kairwan, Tunisia}

{Mosque of St. Catherine, Tunis, Tunisia}

Details from this image:




{Souc-el-Trouk, Tunis, Tunisia}

{Bab Suika-Suker Square, Tunis, Tunisia}

{Kasbah market, Tunis, Tunisia}


Some sources:

the American Photochrom Archive gallery on

Catalogue F. Scenic, architectural and marine views (Detroit Photographic Co., 1899)

About Photocroms on

The Photochrom process on

Photochrom in wikipedia

World Digital Library

Photochrom Prints on the Library of Congress web site

the Detroit Publishing Company Collection on the Library of Congress web site

Detroit Publishing Company Photographs on the Library of Congress web site

Detroit Publishing Co. in wikipedia

The Miracle of Photochrom on

Photochrom on



[1] See the list of sources for information about the Photochrom process and its history.

[2] The prints are from the Photochrom Prints collection of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. Click image to enlarge.


Alan said...

Great post, love the photos

Deniz said...

These are amazing photos, thank you for posting them! Upon taking a good look I thought, Well, so much for Orientalist painters exaggerating what they see! Much of the images look like what I would have imagined my native Istanbul to look like four hundred years ago - but then again I'd be no better than one of those pesky Orientalists for declaring such a thing -