Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A new book looks back at the Detroit Publishing Company's stunning Photochrom postcards.
For those who relied on photographs to see the world in the 19th century, the most famous landmarks and cities were often understood in black and white. But the first mass produced color processing technique, the Photochrom, arrived just in time for a post-Reconstruction America ready to explore all of its rapidly growing cities and stunning western landscapes.
Thanks to the Private Mailing Card Act of 1898, which allowed private publishers to produce postcards, Americans started to send friends and loved ones stunning color photos with a one cent stamp (the letter rate at the time was two cents). As a result, Photochrom postcards of the Grand Canyon, Manhattan, even Native American settlements, started suddenly being sold and sent in vast quantities all around the country.
As told in a stunning new photography book, An American Odyssey (TASCHEN, May 2014), Jackson traveled the U.S. extensively with a sketchbook after the war and started a photography studio with his brother in Omaha. He spent 30 years taking portraits of Native Americans, exploring the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone for the United States Geographical Survey, and traveling the globe for the World's Transportation Commission before being hired by the Detroit Publishing Company in 1897.
As part of his contract, the company had access to his studio's entire collection of negatives, over 10,000 of them. Serving as their director of production, Jackson learned the Photochrom process and tinted photographs by referencing his old watercolor sketches.
The DPC was producing up to 7 million images a year before growing competition, World War I, and a recession in the early 1920s doomed the company. It went into receivership in 1924, with many of its assets sold and distributed around the world.
Known to photography fans and history buffs for producing arguably the greatest collection of early American photography, many of their black and white photographs can be found today in the Library of Congress. In An American Odyssey, readers can see the private collection of DPC Photochroms now owned by photographer and designer Marc Walter (he co-authored the new book with Sabine Arqué). Through 600 pages of lusciously artificial color, we see a side of America from the 1880s to the 1920s that must have been stunning to anyone receiving their first color postcard of a place they had never seen before.
Top image: William Henry Jackson, "Mount Lowe Railway, on the circular bridge, California, photochrom." Collection Marc Walter / Courtesy TASCHEN