Education, Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

Making Over Early Photographs with Color

“First, ever so lightly, I take a little flesh-colored pigment and add a bit of color to his face,” said Luther Gerlach as he glided his brush over an old photograph of a boy clutching a hat. “Then let’s add some browns to the shoes… It’s up to you, but I think a little bit of color goes a long way.”

Luther Gerlach hand-colors a sepia photograph at an Artist-at-Work Demonstration

Hand coloring—adding pigment to monochromatic photos—is the focus of several Artist-at-Work demonstrations being led by the photographer and instructor at the Getty Center this spring. These demos are free, drop-in programs that reveal the secrets of historical art-making techniques, from ancient mosaics to metalworking to photography. Luther’s demos offer the how-to’s of hand coloring, as well as a primer on authentic 19th-century cameras (from his extensive collection), developing processes, and glass negatives.

Luther Gerlach shows off some of his 19th-century cameras and equipment in the Museum Studios at the Getty Center

Luther Gerlach shows off some of his 19th-century cameras and equipment in the Museum Studios at the Getty Center

Hand coloring was extremely popular in the mid- to late 19th century, before color photography was invented. Tourists, especially, preferred souvenir prints and postcards that looked like real life. These novelties also fetched a healthy sum.

Hand-colored 19th-century postcards

Felice Beato, the entrepreneurial global photographer whose work is currently on view in the Center for Photographs, saw the appeal—both artistic and commercial—of hand coloring. During his prolonged stay in Japan, from 1863 to 1884, he created that country’s first hand-colored photographs and albums.

He likely employed woodblock printers to have his images tinted and touched up with pigments and dyes. The subjects were shot in studios or outdoors, and many of the models made appearances in different photographs of daily and cultural life.

The photographs portray an assortment of scenes popular with Western audiences: people at work, in street scenes, modeling fashion, and taking trips. An 1868 album, digitized here, shows a fire master with a sea-foam-green helmet and a priest with a purple sash. Japanese women in traditional hairstyles and dress were captured as they applied pink makeup or had a Japanese-style shampoo.

<em>Fire Master</em>, Felice Beato, 1866–67. Hand-colored albumen silver print in Views of Japan (1868). 10 7/16 x 8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XO.613.26

Fire Master, Felice Beato, 1866–67. Hand-colored albumen silver print in Views of Japan (1868). 10 7/16 x 8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XO.613.26

<em>Mode of Shampooing</em>, Felice Beato, 1866–67. Hand-colored albumen silver print in Views of Japan, (1868), 7 1/16 x 11 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XO.613.33

Mode of Shampooing, Felice Beato, 1866–67. Hand-colored albumen silver print in Views of Japan, (1868), 7 1/16 x 11 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XO.613.33

Of all Beato’s hand-colored prints, it’s Koboto Santaro, the samurai warrior you may have seen on street banners around town, who makes the strongest fashion statement. The noble soldier serving Japan’s rulers sports a vivid armored costume of purple with a dash of orange and green. Now that was a stylish souvenir!

At the demo, Luther showed us hand-colored prints spanning nearly a century to contextualize Beato’s work on view upstairs. He also explored the proper—and imprudent—ways that pigments were applied to photos before the time of Kodachrome.

One example of superior artistry was a dolled-up photo of William Randolph Hearst’s mistress and silent film siren Marion Davies, who looks fetching in red lips and a blonde bob. Another star of the class was a tiny, 1840s daguerreotype of a lady sitting pretty with wisps of clouds in the background.

Luther Gerlach showing examples of hand-colored photographs

But Luther also held up a garish, mass-produced image of a Yosemite landscape crudely painted with blocks of color. “There can be real beauty in these, or they can look like a child colored over the lines,” he said.

The Artist-at-Work Demonstration is offered again on two more Sundays, April 3 and 17. It’s free; just drop by. And if you want to spend a whole day with hand coloring—and come away with your very own piece—you can join Luther for an all-day workshop coming up this Wednesday, March 16.

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      A Chat with Photographer Tomoko Sawada

      A conversation about Japanese matchmaking traditions, self-portraiture, clothes, and identity.

      When did you start photographing yourself?
      I began making self-portraits when I was 19. It was an assignment for a photography class. I can’t even explain in Japanese why I liked them so much. It was instinctual. It’s as if I knew that this was going to be my style, that this is what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it because I love the self-portrait, but I don’t know why. 

      What themes are you exploring in your work?
      I’m interested in the relationship between inside and outside. If you wear a sexy dress or if you wear kids clothes or casual clothes, people treat you differently. Even though you are you no matter what you wear. It’s that relationship that makes me think. 

      My new work is from when I was living in New York. When I was in New York, people didn’t think I was Japanese. Sometimes they thought I was Korean or Chines or Mongolian. Even Singaporean. It was funny, when I would go to the Japanese market, they would speak to me in English. When I went to the Korean market, they would speak to me in English again. I don’t seem to look Japanese outside of Japan. I was surprised because I think I look totally Japanese. It’s funny that people’s points of view are totally different.

      Could you talk a little about OMIAI, the series that represents a traditional Japanese matchmaking technique.
      OMIAI is a tradition that is somehow still working today. Usually, there is a matchmaker and photographs are exchanged before meeting. If both sides are interested, they can meet for lunch or dinner accompanied by their parents and steps for marriage proceed from there. In the old days, some people chose their marriage partner just through photographs, without even meeting each other. 

      When OMIAI was exhibited in Japan I saw people making various comments in from of the work. People would say things like, “she looks like a good cook; surely she would prepare delicious meals every day,” or “ this girl could be a perfect bride for my son,” or “I can tell she would not be a good housewife,” or “she’s such a graceful girl; she must be the daughter of a decent family.” Comments like that. 

      What was the process of making that work?
      I gained 10 pounds before I started taking the pictures, and in six months I lost forty pounds, because I wanted to look different in each photo. I wanted to change the way my legs looked. 

      Every weekend I went to the hair salon and put on a kimono. Then I went to the photo studio on the street in Japan. I would take a picture and then change my clothes to western dress. Then I would go to the studio again the next weekend. 

      Did you tell the photographer how you wanted it done?
      I told him I was an artist and wanted to make photographs with him. I told him to think that each weekend new girls would show up to make the OMIAI. I didn’t want him to think of me as the same girl who came every weekend. He understood the concept. 

      We had fun. While he was taking pictures, his wife would tell me how to lose weight. She gave me many tips.


      Tomoko Sawada’s work is on view at the Getty until February 21, 2016 in “The Younger Generation: Contemporary Japanese Photography”

      02/11/16

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