Classic Colors: Japanese Hand-Colored Photos

Classic Colors: Japanese Hand-Colored Photos

I came across this wonderfully interesting Flickr set the other day. A selection of 49 hand-colored photos of Meiji-era MAIKO and GEISHA in swimsuit fashions of the time. The photos are from a collection of 150 from the Flickr user Okinawa Soba. Obviously, it was the colors that first grabbed my attention, but the discovery led me to look a little more into the history of hand-colored photos.

The popularity of hand-colored photos peaked in the late 1800's and early 1900's but fell from their standing due to the development of color film. They were especially popular in Japan.


Hand-colouring refers to any of a number of methods of manually adding colour to a black-and-white photograph or other image to heighten its realism. Typically, water-colours, oils and other paints or dyes are applied to the image surface using brushes, fingers, cotton swabs or airbrushes. Some photographic genres, particularly landscapes and portraits, have been more often hand-coloured than others, and hand-coloured photographs have been popular enough that some firms specialised in producing them.

Photo from Okinawa Soba

Until the middle of the 20th century, nearly all photography was monochrome – essentially black-and-white, as exemplified by the gelatin silver print. Some photographic processes inherently produced images with an overall colour as, for example, the blue of cyanotypes, and photographic processes were altered by various techniques to produce variations in tone

Swiss painter and printmaker Johann Baptist Isenring used a mixture of gum arabic and pigments to make the first coloured daguerreotype in 1840 or 1841. The coloured powder was fixed on the delicate surface of the daguerreotype by the application of heat. Variations of this technique were patented in England by Richard Beard in 1842 and in France by Étienne Lecchi in 1842 and Léotard de Leuze in 1845. Later, hand-colouring was used with successive photographic innovations, from albumen and gelatin silver prints to lantern slides and transparency photography.

Photo from Okinawa Soba

Popularity in Japan

in Japan, where the practice became a respected and refined art form from the 1860s. It is possible that photographer Charles Parker and his artist partner William Parke Andrew were the first to produce such works in Japan, but the first to consistently employ hand-colouring in the country may well have been Felice Beato – possibly at the suggestion of his artist-friend Charles Wirgman. In Beato's studio the refined skills of Japanese watercolourists and woodblock printmakers were successfully applied to European photography, as evidenced in Beato's volume of hand-coloured portraits, Native Types.

Another notable early photographer in Japan to use hand-colouring was Yokoyama Matsusaburō. Yokoyama had trained as a painter and lithographer as well as a photographer, and he took advantage of his extensive repertoire of skills and techniques to create what he called shashin abura-e (写真油絵) or "photographic oil paintings", in which the paper support of a photograph was cut away and oil paints then applied to the remaining emulsion.

Photo from Okinawa Soba

Later practitioners of hand-colouring in Japan included the firm of Stillfried & Andersen, which acquired Beato's studio in 1877 and hand-coloured many of his negatives in addition to its own. Hand-coloured photographs were also produced by Kusakabe Kimbei, Tamamura Kozaburō, Adolfo Farsari, Uchida Kuichi, Ogawa Kazumasa and others. Many high-quality hand-coloured photographs continued to be made in Japan well into the 20th century.

Color Inspiration

2336103475_022559089a.jpg    girl with hat



2336100925_db8b00ac85.jpg    girl with scarf



2336103053_1c9c91634f.jpg    3 girls sitting



2336937264_9cdf3d31fd.jpg    3 girls standing



Photo from Okinawa Soba
3 girls reclining

Source: Wikipedia: Hand-coloring

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Showing 1 - 12 of 12 Comments
really interesting, i never realized how long the technique has been around. my grandpa was a photographer and used to hand retouch negatives; my grandma used to hand color photographs as well...when they were hand developed. she didn't colorize the photos as much as retouch or enhance detail in colors. my family owned a photo studio in hawaii and i remember standing next to them, watching as they worked. thanks for this article!
These are great! There's nothing quite as classic and fragile as a hand colored photograph. I love them!
All that I wish for is that the facial expressions weren't so dour! They almost take away from the picture itself! I do understand that it took a while for the photos to be taken, and that they always frowned anyways, but still. I do like these a lot, and I only vaguely knew that this form of art existed. Very interesting. Thanks a lot!
This is awesome. I honestly never knew about this.
i love this. i used to do hand coloured photos. i did a one-person show of them at a local gallery once. i think my love of hand colouring started from watching my next door neighbor as a kid. she was a professional hand colourer for Kodak back in the sixties when colour photography was new. many photographers (like portrait studios) took the photos in black and white and sent them to her to add the colour. she had a studio in her basement and i used to just sit and watch her. then i started doing it in just select areas on fine art prints. i stopped doing it when i moved to a place that didn't have room for my darkroom. :( i should start doing it again...
I have done hand-tinting, a long time ago; an art-form not appreciated much now for its painstaking difficulty. These are beautiful. The dourness is due to the need for them to sit super-still to make the exposure work; no flash photography back then. I still love to reproduce this look in my digital photography's *much* easier to do digitally than by hand, without a doubt.
Heh, that actually was a nice read. And photos too.
Good palettes!
I enjoyed reading that.
Very interesting.
Those photos are gorgeous.
those are beautiful
Wow, I learned something new! Great article about this gorgeous technique.. Thank you!
Even today, my Japanese friends don't always smile in pictures. Even casual photos. I think it is a cultural thing :)
Really awesome !!!!

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