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Hand-tinted Photographs

The American Folk Art Museum’s collection of hand-colored photographs includes more than one kind of example from the early 20th century. “French postcards” is a term for mass printed photographic postcards considered too risqué to be openly purchased or sent by mail in America. As author Martin Stevens explains, “By 1910 more than 30,00 people in Paris alone were employed in the erotic postcard industry. This concentration—and France’s reputation for liberality—earned all nude and erotic cards the euphemistic nickname French postcards.”(1) He argues that the golden age of the erotic postcard spanned from 1900 to the end of World War I. They could be purchased by tourists and locals alike in major European cities from Kiosks or mail-ordered from advertisements in men’s magazines. Many were in color, notably through hand-coloring process. While the “French Postcard” industry was principally owned and operated by men, the job of hand-coloring these postcards was often done by women. Historian Paul Hammond likens the early hand-tinting process in several French studios to an assembly line, in which each woman was responsible for applying one color on the postcard. 


Among this collection are photographs taken and developed with a photobooth, subsequently hand colored. Näkki Goranin traces the history of photobooths to 1926, when an American-Siberian inventor, Anatol Josepho, introduced the photobooth to New York City audiences through his studio named Photomaton. Photobooths became an instant novelty, with widespread popularity. In this technology’s infancy, the experience was not exclusively private. Attendants from these early photobooth studios would welcome customers, seat them, and later urge them to pick a favorite photo from the photobooth strip to have enlarged or hand-tinted at the studio. When photobooth technology improved, costs decreased, and they became more wide-spread. Specialty photobooth studios and attendants gradually left the market, and thanks to automation, the photobooth experience evolved into a more a private affair. Like other family photos on display, customers hand-color the photographs themselves using tools like the Peerless or Volex kits. Through factors the customer could control, like their own poses, and the ability to hand-tint their photographs themselves, a photobooth subject could make these images their own.

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