Hand-Tinted Photography: by Erin C. Kruml

Hand-Tinted Photography: by Erin C. Kruml

Wallace Nutting

Wallace Nutting

Demand for hand tinted photographs skyrocketed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, increasing steadily into the present. Since the meager beginnings as affordable middle-class art in the 1900s to 1930s, hand-tinted photographs, in general, are now highly desirable collectibles. Often exterior or outdoor scenes and interior colonial fabricated scenes were photographed and then the photograph was hand painted and sent for matting, creating great gifts and art for any home. Wallace Nutting is the most commercially successful of all hand-tinted photographers. As today’s market swells with hand tinted photography, finding the differences between Nutting and other photographers is complicated, especially because so many early 20th century photographers used similar processes as Nutting, and a few even worked with him, adapting many of his formulas and themes. Many collecting issues have arisen from the plentiful number of photographs on the market today including: artist, subject matter or theme, size, signatures, and condition.
Hand-tinted or hand-colored photography of the early 20th century was inexpensive and a must have for almost any middle class home of the era. In the beginning, photos were colored by the photographer, but with demand came larger studios and staffs of colorists. For example, between 1920-1925 Nutting had a staff of 100 colorists, leading to hundreds of hand-tinted photographs and a decrease in price. Each picture was composed based on these elements: season, time of day, theme, distance and angle from the object, size of the lens, speed of the plate, direction of the sun, and time of exposure (Wallace Nutting-like Photographers 3-8). Unlike others, Nutting took every picture he produced and then gave them a title before coloring. Glass negatives were printed on expensive platinum paper that would not blur the image (during WWI a substitute paper was used, but the differences are negligible). The head colorist would then detail a sample picture for the photographer’s approval, which, when approved, would become the model for other colorists to follow as they produced the pictures in different sizes. In Nutting’s case, the picture was first covered in amyl acetate to help the colors stick and then painted with imported paint from England. After another check by the head colorist, the pictures were sent for mounting. Most mats were tan and indented, while in the 1930 Nutting added black mats, but never it caught on publicly. Finally, a colorist would add the signature, explaining the variance in signatures. Many buyers would reframe the pictures, which is why there exists so many different frames and mat sizes. Nutting created about 10,000 different titles, selling millions of copies ranging in sizes from 2” x 3” to 20” x 40” (Wallace Nutting Pictures 16-20). Other photographers had smaller studios and some did the coloring themselves, but none reached the success of Nutting.
Other popular hand tinted photographers of the era include David Davidson, Fred Thompson, Charles H. Sawyer, and Charles Higgins. A large number of other photographers made tinted photographs. They are not as prolific but include the following: C. J. Burnett (the first to use photographer to use platinum paper), Babcock, J. Bicknell, S.L. Blair, E.A. Bragg, Bill Brehmer, Brooks Burrows, L.A. Busch, Pedro Cacciola, C.D. Currier, Derek, Farini, Gardner, Gibson, Gunn, Guy Edward, Harris, Haynes, Margaret Hennesey, Hodges, Homer, Kabel, Kattleman, Lake, Lamson, Murray, Lyman Nelson, Patterson, Owen Perry, Phelps, Phinney, P. Reynolds, Royce, Sheldon, Stott, W.R. Summers, Ester Svenson, Thomas Thompson, Sanford Tull, Underhill, Villas, Arthur Ward, and Wright. The next few paragraphs elaborate on some of the better-known photographers.
David Davidson was Nutting’s assistant for a time. Davidson, working out of Southbury CT, created many pictures of Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Though many were exterior, his interior scenes were colonial influenced, like Nutting. Pictures from 1905-25 were lightly colored, while 1925-30s were heavily colored. Most had indented mats and were signed in both pencil and pen. However, during WWI he spent most of his time on motion pictures, especially newsreels (Wallace Nutting-Like Photographs 11-23).
Fred Thompson opened Thompson Art Company in 1908 (which explains why TACO is printed on his photographs). Dying in 1909, his son, Fredrick Thompson, took over the company. Thompson’s signature was in pencil, usually in thick block letters and very distinctive; it did not vary like Nutting’s. The mats were usually white linen and were often sold with other decorative items, like mirrors and calendars. Most pictures were taken in Maine, including his famous Portland Head lighthouse photograph (27-37).
Charles H. Sawyer and his Sawyer Picture Company focused on New England exterior pictures. Sawyer worked for Nutting 1902-3. He used similar processes, but changed from Platinum paper to Satista. All his pictures are exterior of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Like Nutting, his signature is usually in the lower left or lower right corner or he also reversed-out in white on the photograph itself. Sawyer liked to accentuate the oranges and browns in his photographs. His later work, 1950-70, contained no glass within the frame. His company persisted the longest, into the 1970s (39-45).
Charles Higgins began his work taking pictures in Maine of work ships and maritime scenes. Though having a similar processing procedure as Nutting, Higgins staff was only composed of ten during his height in the 1920s. He photographed few interior scenes. Most Higgins photos are found in New England, due to his small commercial success. Higgins themes included exteriors, interiors, children, Indians, boats and seascapes. Finally, the signature is within the mat indentation and the title is below the indentation (49-54).
Despite the numerous photographers of the era, Nutting rose above of all then in quality and success, remaining the most sought after hand tinted photographer today. However, there are many considerations in collecting his photographs besides the presence of similar artists including: theme, size, signature, and condition. Nutting themes include exterior, interior, foreign, animals, seascapes, children, floral, men, snow scenes, and miscellaneous. Exterior scenes are composed of apple blossoms, birch trees, country lanes, ponds, lakes, and autumnal scenes. 85% of his exterior scenes were taken in spring or summer seasons. Being so common, they are valued less today. However, exterior scenes with people often sell for more than rare interiors, the price rising with the amount of people in the picture. Interior scenes often had a colonial influence, including the fashion of the models and the chosen furniture. Nutting’s hobby was antiquing, helping him achieve a realistic impression. Still, interior scenes were less popular during their day, accounting for 10% of his pictures. Therefore, interior scenes are relatively rare and usually valued at several times that of the exterior scenes (Wallace Nutting Pictures 19-22; 34).
The remaining themes are often valued higher due to their rarity. Nutting traveled abroad three times. Most pictures were taken in England and Ireland. Photos taken in Algeria, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Scotland, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, Syria, Holland, Turkey and especially Canada have more value. Photos with animals sold poorly, probably because most people lived in rural settings. Sheep are the easiest to find. The rarest include horses or chickens. Only 20-25 seascapes were ever made and those remaining today are usually held in private collections. Pictures with children often did not sell well, with the exception of The Coming Out of Rosa, and are also valued highly today. Nutting did not produce floral themes until the 1930s. Hand tinted photos made in the 1930s are brighter than before because the depression made platinum paper unavailable. Usually taken by Mrs. Nutting, these pictures are rare, (only 30-40 different scenes), and often close-up, very uncharacteristic for Nutting pictures. Pictures with men sold badly, but those containing red jackets or Uncle Sam are the most sought after today. Snow scenes, due to the climate of New England, sold poorly and are usually untitled. The past’s dislikes makes snow scenes quite valuable today. Miscellaneous photos include uncategorized themes and pictures from states outside of New England. These pictures were taken after the peak of Nutting’s business and therefore sold less overall. Foreign scenes and miscellaneous scenes increase in price the quickest, being the rarest, are the most highly sought after by collectors (31-7).
The second consideration is size, which affects the value in the usual way; larger photos are valued higher than smaller ones. However, there are two exceptions: miniatures receive higher value than most large pictures and very large sizes, like 20” x 30”, 20” x 40”, or 30” x 52”, are priced low. Collectors consider two sizes, that of the mat and the picture. If the ratio between the two are unbalanced than the mat has been cropped, usually to hide stains and wear (27).
The third consideration is the signature; it helps date and authenticates a photograph. Like other photographers of his time, the head colorist actually signed most pictures. Pencil signatures are much rarer then pen signatures because pencil signatures were only used between 1900-10, while pen signatures were used for the remaining period of Nutting’s business, 1910-1941. Nutting worked in Southbury CT from 1905-1912 and then in Framingham MA from 1912 until 1941. Pen signatures without a black border were made between 1910-1930. Pen signatures with a black border were produced from 1930-1941. Overall, 1930s signatures were smaller and tighter than previous signatures (39-49).
The fourth and most important consideration is the overall condition, which includes the picture, matting, frame, etc. Any spots, foxing, or water stains on the picture itself are indicators of being improperly stored, usually somewhere damp. Many pictures were placed in an area that received at least some sunlight. Over the years, this can have a devastating impact on the colors and fading is a common problem impacting condition. Also, each colorist had different levels of skill and, therefore, some pictures are aesthetically better than others. The off-white backing where the signature and title are is considered the matting. A water-stained mat decreases the value by 25-50%. Other problems with mats include yellowing, spotting, tearing, and creasing. An overmat may be used to hide these problems, but are worth half as less as an original, unstained mat. Also, black borders indicate a 1930s picture, but are unpopular among some collectors.
Finally, the frame is usually a brown and wooden. However, Nutting sold as many as 15 different types of frames. Any chipping, pitting, paint, or ugly frames take away from the value of the picture. Also, collectors want to look for the original paper backing, a copyright label, and the original wavy glass for an increase in value (22-27).
Finally, beware of 1920s pirated prints and 1970s reproductions! However, there are some easy ways to tell a fake. The pirated prints are those created by copying popular Nutting pictures with a machine. A magnifying glass can reveal a symmetrical series of dots that indicate machine copying. Many have a colored border around the picture itself, eliminating Nutting’s signature, but keeping the title in the same place. The 1970s reproductions are photographs of actual Nutting photographs and can be seen as fakes through a magnifying glass. The photos are darker and glossier, the mats are thin, the signature has a purplish tint, and the frames are newer (70-2). Wallace Nutting photographs are wonderful collectables, but before you start your personal collection, learn as much as you can about hand tinted photography in order to make sure you are bringing home a classic, not a dud. A great place to start is two books by Michael Ivankovich, which are listed as references.
Ivankovich, Michael. Collecting Wallace Nutting Pictures: Identifications and Values. Collector Books, Paducah KY, 1997.

Ivankovich, Michael. Wallace Nutting-Like Photographers of the 20th century. Diamond Press, Doylestown, 1991.

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  1. John Mills Bigham says:

    This is a good read! I was attracted to the art of the photograph through dags and ambrotypes especially SC Confederate images in South Carolina, where I am a native living in Columbia. My favorite in SC is Richard Wearn/William P. Hix, then those in Charleston. Am also attracted to post card colorists. Influenced by the 19th c. photographic artists here, since 1996 have been reproducing small amounts of tinted photos of SC scenes and recently tinting Confederate generals as found at National Archives and the Library of Congress. Anyway! Enjoyed your lesson on New England tinters. Thanks, John

    ps: recently retired and working to make income on my tints. Any advice welcome.