1The 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 commercial use.
2Color 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.
4Color 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.
5Color 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.