Photo Essays

Photochroms Capture Belle Époque Germany in Color

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Germanisches Nationalmuseum, historical German kitchen (image © Collection Marc Walter, all images from ‘Germany Around 1900: A Portrait in Colour,’ courtesy of Taschen)

Whether it offers an image of a sun-drenched beach or a pristine ski slope, the picture-postcard has become a photographic genre unto itself, synonymous with escapist fantasy. With their “Wish you were here!” slogans and generic views, however, most of today’s mass-manufactured vacation spot postcards seem cheesy and disposable.

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In Germany in the early 1900s, before the popularization of color film, colored photochrom postcards were coveted novelties, all the rage in a burgeoning tourist industry. And more than a century later, these images remain as mesmerizing as they were when first printed. A book from Taschen, Germany Around 1900: A Portrait in Colour, compiles 800 colored images of Germany’s Belle Époque, picturing sites from Ludwig II’s castles in the Bavarian Alps to fancy Baltic bathing resorts. They’re rare examples of the painstaking photochrom process, a printing technique originally developed by lithographer Hans Jakob Schmid, the chief engineer at Zurich printing firm Orell Füssli & Co., that allowed black-and-white photographs to be reproduced in color.

These postcards, which were manufactured as souvenirs for tourists, drench Germany with a kind of enchanted romanticism. The country was, at the time, experiencing an unusually long period of peace and economic prosperity after a turbulent 19th century, and these photochroms reflect widespread optimism and patriotism. They look hyperreal, almost too richly colored to be true, much like today’s postcard-gracing utopian shots of beaches and other vacation getaways. Viewed in retrospect, the optimism about Germany’s future also takes on a dark irony.

“They bring back to life places that have since suffered the ravages of time and the devastation of the wars of the 20th century,” collector Marc Walter writes in the book.

Above and beyond the commercial aspect that was a driving force behind their invention, the fact remains that these photochroms possess a powerful poetry that makes them eloquent witnesses of their epoch. . . . They attract, seduce, surprise and move us. The past comes back to life before our eyes, strangely present. What emerges is the souvenir of a country, a memoir in color. We have souvenir photography to thank for the fact that the ‘old days’ arise again in their former, unscathed glory, and the virtuoso photochromists for the fact that they do so in color.

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Neuschwanstein Castle, bedroom decorated with scenes from the Tristan saga (© Collection Marc Walter)
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Castle of Sigmaringen (© Collection Marc Walter)
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Rheinstein Castle near Trechtingshausen (© Collection Marc Walter)
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Wernigerode, Town Hall (© Collection Marc Walter)
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Eisenach, Hohe Sonne plateau with view of Wartburg Castle (© Collection Marc Walter)
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Hildesheim, Knochenhaueramtshaus (butchers’ guild hall) (© Collection Marc Walter)
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Bastei Bridge seen from Ferdinandstein rock (© Collection Mark Walter)
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Schwerin, grand-ducal palace, east side (© Collection Marc Walter)
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Westerland, sandcastles and dunes (© Collection Marc Walter)

Germany Around 1900: A Portrait in Colour is published by Taschen and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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