Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell created the first color photograph in history, entitled “Tartan Ribbon”; ca. 1861
Best known for his development of electromagnetic theory, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell dabbled in color theory throughout his life, eventually producing the first color photograph in 1861. Maxwell created the image of the tartan ribbon shown here by photographing it three times through red, blue, and yellow filters, then recombining the images into one color composite.
These are actually not colorized photographs, they’re color photographs by a man named Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. He’s a Russian who really pioneered in, and made the field of color photography something worth funding. He was given funding by Tsar Nicholas II to take 2 trips through Russia photographing everything that came to mind. He went on 2 trips, one in 1909, and one a bit later in 1915.
Gorsky was one of the later photographers in this medium, but he certainly wasn’t someone who fades in comparison. The earlier individuals are people who were experimenting with different methods, cameras, exposures, and emulsions (The light-sensitive coating that was smeared on the glass plate to permanently imprint the image after the exposure). Individuals like Adolf Miethe (who was active in 1902 onwards), and Edward Raymond Turner (The Englishman who filmed the first color photographs in 1902) have one thing in common –They all used the same three-color process of photographing three individual glass plates in red, green, and blue, and then combining them in one channel.
The three-color process was first theorized by James Clerk Maxwell in 1855, and put in to practice by a man named Thomas Sutton in a photograph captured in 1861, a very famous one nonetheless! It was a simple tartan ribbon, but it reproduced permanent color. There’s been earlier examples of possible color photographs, like the Hillotypes (Named for the inventor, a minister by the name of Levi Hill), but this is an entirely different story altogether, and one with which I’m not familiar enough to comfortably answer.
All in all, after Maxwell’s successful ‘experiment’ conducted by Sutton, a man named Louis Ducos du Hauron caught an interest in the medium. Before 1877, he had patented several processes related to color photography, and finally in ’77, he took the first confirmed color photograph. There’s been rumors of this photograph being from 1869, but others put it at 1879. It’s currently disputed enough to really not make the running, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, Hauron is my favorite person of this era.
Moving along to the late 19th century, the Lumière brothers come in to play. Louis Lumière and Auguste Lumière (Lumière meaning Light in French!) held a little get together in 1895, screening early motion pictures. The 2 brothers also invented the dry-plate, which was necessary for commercially viable color photography, but that’s for later! They theorized that a plate, with a single exposure, could produce viable color photographs, instead of the previously tiring 3 exposures for a single photograph. So, they set about trying for the different ways of achieving this. They didn’t actually receive any success until 1903, when they filed the following patent for an Autochrome Lumière (A small excerpt):
- The colored particles are grains of starch, ferments, leavens, bacilli, pulverized enamels, or other pulberulent and transparent materials. They are colored by means of colors also transparent in orange, green, and violet, or else in red, yellow, and blue, or even in any number of colors, such that the grains of these different colors being mixed as intimately as possible in the state of dry powder and in suitable proportions and then applied to the glass they do not communicate to the surface of the plate any appreciate coloration.
So essentially, in 1907, they launched the Autochrome Lumière to great success. It was affordable (Not compared to B/W photography though!), it was simple, and it was user friendly. Pop in a plate, expose, color photography! Quite simple, really. However, Gorsky, used the three-color method to great success. He achieved unprecedented results and a stunning quality compared to his colleagues, mostly due to something called ‘digichromatography’. Gorsky’s camera is also unknown as he likely designed it himself, but a fun fact is he might’ve drawn inspiration from Adolf Miethe who he met while traveling through Germany, Miethe having had his camera designed by a cabinet maker while in Berlin.
In the later years, more pioneers entered the field. People with inventions that were brilliant, but not commercially viable, and inventions that were quite funky, but, well, ingenious. All in all, a quick wrap is easy.
Here’s a video covering this subject quite nicely, from the annals of the craft to the modern 20th century:
Bashkir switchman on the Trans-Siberian Railway near the town of Ust-Katav, Russian Empire; ca. 1910
Taken by color photography pioneer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. He had an interest in documenting early 20th Century Russia through photography, but also enjoyed photographing others as well.
(For more of his fantastic work, take a look at the Wikimedia Commons page about him.)