A Look Back at the Forgotten Art of Hand-Tinted Photography
The hand-tinted photos of Lewis Reed and his daughter, Mary Jane, are examples of the photographic process that most of the people reading this will have never experienced: hand-tinting.
The golden age of hand-colored photography occurred between 1900 and 1940. Before the days of true color photography, these views were immensely popular. While hand coloring doesn’t help you identify or date an image, it does enhance a photograph’s appearance and add to its history.
Before the advent of color photography, photographers painstakingly applied color to black and white photos in order to show a truer visual depiction of a photo image. All of the photographs featured here were taken by Lewis Reed in the early 1900s and were hand-tinted by his daughter, Mary Jane, likely in the late 1930s to 1940. She colored the photos with special photographic watercolor and a paintbrush. Rather than coloring the entire image—a time-consuming task—she carefully selected details that would make the image lively and attractive. The fact that these photos, all of which are over 100 years old, are still in relatively good condition is a strong testament to the lasting power of hand-tinted photographs.
Do you recognize the road pictured below? Few modern residents of Montgomery County would guess, but this is a shot down Veirs Mill Road in the early 1900s. Mary Jane Reed added some depth to the image with subtle earth tones, in the colorized version.
Below, Lewis Reed’s c. 1909 photograph of his little cousin, Amanda Reed, sitting amongst the hydrangeas — the original before, and the colorized version after.
To a visual artist like a dedicated photographer, the inability of the black-and-white camera to capture the richness of colorful blooms or the vibrancy of a summer scene must have been endlessly frustrating.
Lewis Reed’s daughter Mary Jane seemed particularly fond of hand-tinting photographs of flowers — it must have given her a lot of pleasure to “restore” color to her father’s beautifully composed shots. View some more of her work below.
Below are two different versions of tinting a similar image. In Version 2, some of the flowers at the top were removed from the vase (by Lewis Reed, before taking a second shot) for a different aesthetic effect. The color artist used bolder colors to enhance that effect.
Other examples of hand-tinting are included in the following collection of Lewis Reed’s Black Rock Mill photographs. Black Rock Mill was built by Thomas Hillary and has stood along the banks of Great Seneca Creek as a landmark since its construction in 1815-1816. The mill was in working operation for over a hundred years until a flood in 1920 destroyed a dam on Seneca Creek and damaged the mill. Today, it a unique survivor of the many mills in Montgomery County harnessing the water-power of the creeks to grind wheat and corn into flour. It is one of only two mills standing in Montgomery County Maryland.
The art of hand-tinted photos was introduced along side the daguerreotype in 1839. In the 19th century it was most common for the professional photographer to tint the photograph or tintype just after printing. Later photo artists introduced new techniques using oil, watercolor and other types of paint to achieve the desired result. With the Great Depression, the sale of professional hand-tinted photographs declined, but the home artist continued to have access to hand-tinting kits. Today, we can look back and appreciate the time and creativity it took to edit these photos without Photoshop.
Find photos like these and much more on Montgomery History’s online exhibit, “Montgomery County 1900-1930: Through the Lens of Lewis Reed“.
Before There Was Photoshop, There Was Lewis Reed…
If you take a look at the state of photography today, such as the advances of digital cameras and the artful image manipulation by Photoshop, it is easy to forget that back in the 1900s photographers couldn’t just go into a computer program and change their images any way they wanted. They did what they could with the tools they had. Double image exposure was one tool Lewis Reed had in his photography tool belt. He was doing crazy things to images and creating humorous effects over 100 years ago. With double exposure technique, you could create certain effects like placing the same person on both sides of a picture simultaneously. Photographs were pieced together in the darkroom from separate photographs.
Spotting these manipulated photos in Lewis Reed’s extensive collection has been both easy and difficult. It wasn’t until I viewed the high resolution scan that the modification jumped out at me. The photograph below taken at Black Rock Mill, highlights Lewis Reed’s photo manipulation. (click image to enlarge)
With double-exposure technique, Lewis Reed learned how to make a subject appear twice in a frame, as if they had an identical twin. To capture these images, he would snap a picture of the subject in one position. Then, he would have to move into another pose before the following photo was shot. Rotating lens caps and special glass plates (the precursor to film) were also part of the process. The final image was then pieced together and developed in the darkroom from the separate photographs. The result was a playful and surreal approach to early photographs.
Double exposure technique often left a telltale vertical line running down the center of the image that is lighter than the left and right sides — a fuzzy stripe separating the two exposures. This is the area where the two exposures overlapped. The picture is lighter where the images overlap because the exposure value is doubled (causing over-exposure) in that specific vertical area. The left half of the image (standing at the foot of the bridge) ends where the light band becomes dark on the right side. And vice versa for the right half of the image (standing on top of the bridge).
Today we are accustomed to Photoshop and people manipulating images, but back in the early 1900’s photo manipulation was used as a form of whimsy.
New Online Exhibit: Early 20th Century Photo Magic
Montgomery History has launched a new Photo-Magic section of their recent exhibit, “Montgomery County 1900-1930: Through the Lens of Lewis Reed“. Learn about about 20th century photo editing tricks — and find out how the photo above was manipulated. The new exhibit section details how self-taught photographer and pioneering automobile dealer Lewis Reed edited photos before computers existed, using techniques like hand-tinting and double exposure. This exhibit was co-developed by Blog Author, Jeanne Gartner and Montgomery History Librarian & Archivist, Sarah Hedlund.
Lewis Reed’s ‘Ghost’ Photograph
Lewis Reed had a passion for photography and had the know-how to try out a few of the trick shots that were popular at the time — including creating double exposures that made it look as if there were ghosts in the picture.
When I saw this photograph — which is slick enough to fool anyone not paying attention to detail — I became curious. How on earth did he do that? So I did some research to get some information on what went into this type of photography. This technique often left a telltale vertical line along the center of the image — a fuzzy stripe separating the two exposures.
Supernatural effects were mainly accomplished using double exposure. When developing the photos, a pre-prepared glass plate would be used which already had the image of a person on it. This would be the ‘ghost’. It would then be inserted into the camera in front of an unused plate which was used to shoot the photo. The developed negative comes out with both images on it — an incompletely exposed ghostly image as well as a sitter, looking perfectly unaware.
I think it’s really amazing how Lewis Reed’s early photography shows such versatility and creativity.
Photo Manipulation Without a Computer
If you take a look at the state of photography today, such as the advances of digital cameras and the artful image manipulation by Photoshop, it is easy to forget that back in the 1900s photographers couldn’t just go into a computer program and change their images any way they wanted. Instead of retouching an image on a computer, as it’s done now, it originally took place on the negative.
Photo manipulation was one tool Lewis Reed had in his photography tool belt. He was 100 years ahead of his time by creating special effects to images long before the convenience and efficiency of digital photography and Photoshop were ever imaginable.
I was hugely interested in how this was undertaken, and by the fact that the modification looked so seamless in the printed image. Spotting these manipulated photos in his extensive collection has been both easy and difficult. Some were simple double exposure images or hand colored images. The addition of these hand-drawn backgrounds was a little more difficult. It wasn’t until I viewed the high resolution scan that this modification jumped out at me.
Reading up on the subject I have become aware that retouching is in fact an art that evolved right alongside the birth of photography. The photographs below were retouched by hand (also known as “handwork”) on the glass negative using a hard graphite pencil and pieced together in the darkroom from separate photographs. The two photographs, one of the people standing on the edge of a cliff, and the other of the hand-drawn mountains, appear to be joined at the edge of the cliff where the mountains begin. All of this required a degree of artistic skill and access to a darkroom. Lewis Reed developed his own photographs in a darkroom in his house — in the kitchen, to be exact — and worked at night to develop the negatives.
The photographs below show two unknown people posing on a cliff in front of a hand-drawn background of mountains.
Today, we can look back and appreciate the time and creativity it took to edit these photos without Photoshop.