The oldest known color photograph: 1872
Before the Autochrome process was perfected in France, this photograph of a landscape
in Southern France was taken. No, it is not hand-tinted. This is a color-photograph.
(Note: It was published in a Time/Life Book entitled "Color" in 1972, "courtesey of
George Eastman House, Paulus Lesser.") You are looking at the birth of color
photography seven years after the American Civil War. 130 years ago this view of
Angouleme, France, was created by a "subtractive" method. This is the basis for all
color photography, even today. It was taken by Louis Ducos du Hauron who proposed the
method in 1869. It was not until the 1930's that this method was perfected for
Color Photos from the Russian Empire
Monastery from the Solarium
Color film was non-existent in 1909 Russia, yet in that year a photographer named
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii embarked on a photographic survey of his homeland
and captured hundreds of photos in full, vivid color. His photographic plates were
black and white, but he had developed an ingenious photographic technique which
allowed him to use them to produce accurate color images.
The Emir of Bukhara
He accomplished this with a clever camera of his own design, which took three black
and white photos of a scene in rapid sequence, each though a differently colored
filter. His photographic plates were long and slender, capturing all three images onto
the same plate, resulting in three monochrome images which each had certain color
information filtered out.
A Zindan (prison)
Sergei was then able to use a special image projector to project the three images onto
a screen, each directly overlapping the others, and each through the appropriately
colored filter. The recombined projection was a full-color representation of the
original scene. Emir of BukharaEach three-image series captured by the camera stored
all of the color information onto the black and white plates; all they lacked was
actual tint, which the color filters on the projector restored.
Tsar Nicholas II fully supported Sergei's ambitious plan to document the Russian
Empire, and provided a specially equipped railroad car which enclosed a darkroom for
Sergei to develop his glass plates. He took hundreds of these color photos all over
Russia from 1909 through 1915.
in 1907, the first practical color photographic plates were introduced to the world by
the Lumière brothers in France. The plates were called "Autochrome Lumière," and they
were made up of microscopic potato starch grains which were dyed orange, green, and
blue; sandwiched between black-and-white film and a piece of glass; then coated in
shellac. The tiny starch grains acted as color filters, making the film essentially a
mosaic made up of many tiny pieces.
Once the black-and-white film base was developed, the dyed starch layer which had
acted as many tiny color filters when the photo was taken now did the same task in
reverse, giving the color back to the underlying image. The technology was a bit crude
and grainy, but it was able to capture full color images which turned out looking
Marine RiflemenAutochrome film was expensive, slow and rare, so it didn't see a lot of
use by the general public. But when World War One broke out in 1914, the French army
began photographing soldiers and scenery, and some of their photos were taken with
this new color film. As a result, a large proportion of color photos from that time
are images of French soldiers in the field.
Color Photos from WWI
Although color photography was around prior to 1903, the Lumière brothers, Auguste and
Louis, patented the process in 1903 and developed the first color film in 1907. The
French army was the primary source of color photos during the course of World War One.
Color Photos from WWII
The fact that most people imagine World War II solely in black and white has a solid
historical reason: most of the estimated 40 million photos taken between 1939 and 1940
were not in color. The photographers of Russia's Red Army didn't even carry any color
film with them, despite the fact that Kodak's Kodachrome, the first mass-produced
color film available, appeared in the US beginning in 1935 and came to Europe a year
later. It took a while for color to catch on among photographers, and it wasn't until
after the end of the war that it came to dominate the field of photo-journalism.