The 1906 San Francisco quake, in color

Many people have seen black and white photographs of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. But the earthquake photographs shown below are in color. How is this possible?

SanFranciscoEarthquakeIvesKromogram SanEarthquake063NearCityHall
Left: Half of a Krőmgram by Frederick Eugene Ives. A view towards downtown San Francisco, October 1906. Right: Half of a Krőmgram by Frederick Eugene Ives. A view from near city hall, San Francisco, October 1906.

We tend to think of the photographic world up to the middle of the 20th century as a black and white world. The majority of snapshots, movies, magazines and book illustrations until the 1950’s are in black and white even though color photography has been available in some form since the late 19th century.

Among the photographers who experimented with color photography in the late 19th century was Frederick Eugene Ives. He is best known for his invention of halftone printing in the 1880s. However, Ives spent much of his life attempting to develop a number of commercially viable methods of color photography, with little success.

The first color process Ives attempted to market was the Photochromoscope system. He employed subtractive color theory to record scenes with a one- shot stereoscopic camera. Ives’ camera system of mirrors and filters behind each lens split and filtered the light to create one pair of slides for each primary color of light (red, green, blue). The slides were bound together in a special order with cloth tapes into a package known as a Krőmgram. The Krőmscőp was the apparatus used to rebuild the image allowing the viewer to see in three-dimensional color.

The Ives Photochromoscope system was on sale for several years but was commercially un-successful. The Krőmscőp viewers were expensive ($50 in 1907 or about $1000 today adjusting for inflation), required strong sunlight or arc light for viewing, and were technically complex to use, despite Ives’ assertions to the contrary. Precise alignment of the Krőmgram in the Krőmscőp and careful adjustment of the lighting was required to obtain a satisfactory color image. Also the Photochromoscope apparatus was solely sold by the Scientific Shop of Chicago whose main clientele was not the general public but rather colleges, universities, and observatories.

Ives’ work has left a legacy of several hundred early Krőmgram color photographs dating from the 1890s to the 1910s which are preserved in the museum’s Photographic History Collection. Ives traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe often taking the only existing color photographs of his subjects that date from this time period.

Today the advent of digital imaging makes it easy to combine Ives’ color separation images into a single color image using Photoshop by scanning each of the three primary color slides and layering them together. The photographs shown here are from two of several Krőmgrams taken by Ives on a trip to San Francisco in October 1906, six months after the great earthquake on April 18th. Most of the other photographs taken by Ives on this trip were from the Majestic hotel roof and show little beyond the rooftops of nearby buildings, but the two shown here were taken near or at street level. The first image shows what is probably a temporary wooden building on the left with an area of rubble on the right and the city in the background. Under magnification it is possible to read the billboards center right, one of which advertises a pair of shoes for 25 cents. The second image shows a field of rubble near San Francisco’s city hall.

By 1907 the Lumière brothers in France had introduced the color Autochrome plate. Autochromes were a simpler color process and became the first commercially successful color process. An example from 1908 can be found on HistoryWired. The success of Autochromes brought an end to Ives’ marketing attempts with his Photochromoscope process. Ives continued to experiment with other color processes, but none of his later experiments made a significant impact on the commercial development of color photography. The end result has been to make Ives relatively unknown in the history of early color photography.

Anthony Brooks is a volunteer in the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 3:17 pm EST in From the Collections