Edward Bierstadt: Color Photography and Color Printing

By Hanson, David | Printing History, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Edward Bierstadt: Color Photography and Color Printing


Hanson, David, Printing History


Today, we take color photography for granted. In fact, we are surrounded by color imagery, all of it utilizing the three primary colors (red, blue, and green) and their secondary ones (magenta, cyan, and yellow). Our televisions, computer monitors, and cellular telephones all use displays that have the three primary colors. All of our color magazines and newspapers are printed with the secondaries, but this technology was just becoming established only about one hundred years ago. (1)

Edward Bierstadt, the brother of the New York State photographer Charles Bierstadt and the painter Albert Bierstadt, was a successful printer in New York City from about 1872 until his death in 1905. During that period, he founded the Photo-Plate Printing Company in 1870 and produced collotype prints under the Albert and Obernetter patents. (2) His company was considered one of the premier printers employing these methods in the United States, and he produced a number of significant book illustrations. As with all of the first producers of commercial photomechanical prints in the United States (such as Ernest Edwards, Frederick Gutekunst, Stephen Horgan, William Leggo, Frederic Ives, and the photographic experimenter R. D. Gray), Bierstadt constantly strove to make his techniques produce more accurately. The goal of greatest importance to these innovators was the production of accurate color photographs and prints.

Bierstadt has never been considered one of the important figures in the perfection of three-color photography and printing. This is partly due to the fact that he produced no published results. In addition, he was reaching retirement age when the major breakthroughs were finally occurring. He is listed, however, as having shown three-color prints in exhibitions in the 1890s. He was sixty-eight in 1892 when his major color prints were exhibited, and this included the first color photographs of human portraits. Only one of these portraits has been found.

In 1839, when the first photographic images were shown to the world, one of the remarks made at the time was that the images were in tone, as in a lithograph, without color. From that day forward, photographic experimenters sought to address the issues associated with color. It was in 1861 that James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated the ability to photograph, using black-and-white negatives, through filters of the three primary colors, to achieve a photographic image in full color. (3) Louis Ducos du Hauron then successfully managed to make three-color prints from wet-plate negatives of color images in 1870 (fig. 1). (4) Louis-Desire Blanquart-Evrard produced a three-color plate from botanical specimens in 1871, but he died in 1872 (fig. 2). (5) As explained in Josef Maria Eder's History of Photography, a number of firms were busy attempting three-color printing throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Josef Albert in Munich began experiments in the mid 1870s using his collotype printing method. (6) In the May 1878 issue of Popular Science Monthly, Professor Charles Chandler of Columbia College (it was renamed Columbia University in 1896) is quoted as saying that Edward Bierstadt was working with Albert on photography in colors. (7) In fact, at the November 1878 meeting of the Photographic Section of the American Institute in New York City, Mr. O. G. Mason (secretary) asked Edward Bierstadt to speak on his recent work:

      Mr. Edward Bierstadt, in answer, exhibited some specimens of
   coloured photographs, which he said were made in a peculiar manner.
   They were printed by the Albertype process, from three different
   plates of each subject. He had seen published, something like a
   year ago, an article by an Englishman who proposed to make similar
   negatives by allowing the light from the object to pass through a
   prism, by which the light from the object would be analyzed; and
   thus the blue, yellow, and the red rays would each make a different
   negative, and by printing the three colours over each other we have
   the effect here produced. … 

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