An American Odyssey
by Marc Walter and Sabine Arque
4 stars
Charley Lanyon

Taschen's new photo-book, An American Odyssey: Photos from the Detroit Photographic Company 1888-1924, is massive, both in scope and literal size: it is almost unmanageably large.

Yet its girth, however unwieldy, is appropriate to its subject: America. In the tome's generous definition, "America" stretches from New York City in the east, to the Wild West and Pacific coast in the west, and from Montreal in the north to Cuba and the Bahamas in the south.

The images are likely to be the earliest colour representations the reader has ever seen of America; often they are the earliest ever made.

At the end of the 19th century, the Detroit Photographic Company made a name for itself providing colour photographs of America's places of interest to hordes of eager and awestruck tourists. From a collection of more than 100,000 images, it used a Swiss process called Photochrom to produce several thousand full-colour prints. For many Americans, these were the first colour representations of the continent they had ever seen; for a New Yorker, the colours and characters of the fabled western frontier must have seemed like an alien world.

Later photographers and art historians would criticise Photochrom prints for their garish colours and lack of realism, but I found many of the images truly beautiful, often awe-inspiring. Four-page foldouts of turn-of-the-century Manhattan or the Grand Canyon felt rich and alive on the page.

What the images lack in aesthetic value they make up for in historic interest. The landscape pictures are lovely, but the collection comes alive when people are in the frame. The photographs capture a time when America was at the peak of its hardscrabble, polyglot exuberance. Hours can pass simply reading store signs, or poring over faces among the masses on tenement-lined streets.

An American Odyssey is a celebration of the North American continent made exceptional by its scope: leisure alongside labour, destitution next to wealth, expansive landscapes juxtaposed with intimate moments such as a postcard of a couple on a beach in Atlantic City.

Dressed in a bathing suit, he sits awkwardly in a tiny cart holding the reins of an annoyed-looking goat. Next to him is a woman in a floor-length black dress astride a donkey, and below the staring couple the caption: "They were on their honeymoon."