Color photo pioneer had roots in Downingtown

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William Clinton South

William C. South

WEST CHESTER — Who knew that one of the pioneers of color photography lived in Downingtown?

Jim LaDrew, a retired photo finisher and local historian thought William C. South was worthy of remembrance. He collaborated with Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist of Chester County Historical Society, to post South’s story on Wikipedia.

According to Powell, “South was a Renaissance man who had many talents not only as an inventor, but also as an artist and musician. He changed and adapted according to the situation.”

William South, born in 1872 in Downingtown, was a successful commercial photographer working for railroad and steamer lines at the turn of the 19th century. As a young person he had aspired to be a water color artist. He was fascinated with the pioneering work of Arthur Louis Ducos DuHauron who created a color photograph in 1868 by superimposing layers of red, blue and yellow pigments.

South made improvements on Ducos duHauron’s idea and patented a camera that took three identical images at once through orange, violet and green filters. When these negatives were printed using successive printings with corresponding red, blue and yellow pigments it created a color photograph with the appearance of a watercolor.

South patented his camera and process in 1904 and named it the Solgram Color Photograph. He built a factory on St. Joseph’s Alley in Downingtown to manufacture paper and chemicals.

Peaches, ca. 1904

An early color image created by South’s process in 1904.

South had difficulty marketing the process because Eastman Kodak did not allow their dealers to sell products by other makers. He unsuccessfully sued Kodak long before the anti-trust laws put an end to the practice.  South ran a school for commercial photographers called the Keystone School of Photography at the site of his factory.

Besides being a talented photographer South was also a gifted violinist. He retired from photography and became the manager of the Premier Dance Orchestra, gave music lessons and built violins. He and his students gave performances at the Old Fiddlers’ Picnics in the 1920s.

The complete archives of the Solgram Color Photo Company including business records, photographs, patents and advertising materials are in the collection of Chester County Historical Society. A guide is available on the website at http://www.chestercohistorical.org/photo-search

His photographs were featured at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1989 in an exhibition selected from Philadelphia area public collections as part of the Photography Sesquicentennial Project.

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