The Lost Art Of Hand-Colored Photography

Avid West Barnstable collector aims to revive interest in early 20th-century art form.

By Lisa Leigh Connors photography by Michael Karchmer

At one time, millions of Americans owned at least one Wallace Nutting hand-colored photograph. Between 1915 and 1925, the inexpensive and unusual art form was a popular wedding gift among the middle class. Nutting’s pictures of apple blossoms, spring and fall landscapes, and picturesque countrysides appealed to the masses.

But the market slowed after the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. By 1940, the invention of Eastman Kodak color film marked the end of the golden age of hand-colored photography. Any remaining colored photographs were either put in boxes in the basement and attic, or even thrown in the trash.

Today, West Barnstable resident Sharon Lacasse is on a mission. The avid collector of early 20th-century Cape Cod hand-colored photographs seeks to revive interest in the lost art form and preserve a piece of the past. As vice president of the Wallace Nutting Collectors Club, Lacasse helps market the club’s annual convention, held in a different state each year, and writes an article for the club’s annual newsletter. The clubs boasts around 175 members from Massachusetts to California and Lacasse hopes to attract younger members.

“I really love seeing people becoming interested in hand-colored photography,” says Lacasse, who points out the photos show a simpler way of life, before telephone wires and paved roads. “Some people don’t even know what a hand-colored photograph is. It has just been pushed to the back-burner because nobody does it anymore.”

Lacasse, a former accountant, first became interested in hand-colored photography when she moved to West Barnstable with her husband and daughter in 1986. One of her first goals in the new house—to dress up the white, bare walls with beautiful artwork. Lacasse started attending auctions, but the paintings were well beyond her budget. Then she discovered hand-colored photography, which turned out to be more affordable, typically ranging in price from $150 to $500.

“I talked to antique dealers and they gave me a lot of information on Wallace Nutting,” she says. “I started just buying his artwork, but it came next to impossible to find anything of the Cape. He didn’t do that many pictures here.”

She slowly branched out and bought images by William Coffin, H. Marshall Gardiner, Charles Sawyer, and R. Winslow, among several others. Coffin and Gardiner both worked on Nantucket, so many of their images feature boats, dunes and the seaside. Winslow photographed the dunes of Eastham, Truro and Provincetown, while Sawyer occasionally visited the Cape to photograph windmills.

The process of coloring photographs was not only expensive, but labor-intensive. Nutting, for instance, printed glass negatives directly onto platinum paper before World War I and, later, on regular paper. More than 100 colorists in Nutting’s studio worked with fine-tipped paintbrushes and fine watercolors, mixed the colors together and hand-tinted each image. “It was laborious,” says Lacasse. “I have seen pictures of the colorists and they were just in rows at picnic tables doing this work. Day after day, they made pennies. They did it to supplement their husband’s income.”

Nutting was considered the Martha Stewart of hand-colored photography because he kept pristine records and he knew how to promote himself, says Lacasse. “He sold more hand-colored photography than anyone else.”

One of Lacasse’s prized possessions hangs on the wall in her kitchen. It’s called “Dory Mates, Nantucket,” by Gardiner. “It looks like a painting. He didn’t mass produce like Nutting.” Gardiner did all of his coloring, unlike Nutting. “There are very few Gardiner photos to be found,” says Lacasse. “If you put his name on eBay, nothing comes up.”

Her house is also furnished with Nutting chairs, hutches and tables. “At first we had no idea Nutting made furniture,” says Lacasse, who says the furniture is well-constructed. “There were so few pieces to be found.”

At one time, Lacasse owned about 175 works of art, but has since sold some of her photographs to fund her full-time hobby. She now owns about 150 and, of those, about 100 feature Cape Cod images, including “Joseph Lincoln’s Garden (Chatham),” by Sawyer, and “The Pool at Sandwich,” by Nutting.

At the height of the market, Lacasse paid upward of $600 to $700 for some pieces. “But the market has come down a little bit,” says Lacasse. It is a good time to start collecting, she says, because the market has leveled off.

She advises new collectors to hunt for hand-colored photography at yard sales and flea markets and only buy the “best of the best” and don’t buy one with a stained matte. Once bought, take the picture apart, wash the inside of the glass, and put back together with an acid-free board, which can be bought at any craft store.

“I do make money at it, but most of it goes back in again. It’s an addiction. Most collectors are addicted,” she says, with a laugh. “I don’t think there is a collectors’ anonymous club that can help you to stop doing this.”

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