Home 150th Anniversary of Color Photography

150th Anniversary of Color Photography

From Louis Ducos du Hauron to Flickr, from the colloidial wet plate box to the iPhone, we have had color photographs now for well over a century. In fact, the first color photograph was unveiled on this date 150 years ago at a lecture at the Royal Institution in London by James Clerk Maxwell, the Chair of Natural Philosphy at King’s College.

The subject, a tartan ribbon, was made by projecting three different color-filtered exposures into one image using lanterns. This “three-color process” is the basis of every color photograph from Prokudin-Gorsky’s portrait of the Emir of Bokhara to the latest horrifying upload of your lunch burrito to Twitpic.

Maxwell was actually a physicist, one whom many modern scientists consider on a par with Einstein. In the Millenium Poll of the 100 top physicist he was voted third most important of all time. His three-color process started life as one of his many theoretical papers on the physics of light and color theory.

Oddly, as Richard Webb notes in New Scientist, his experiment was a failure, albeit a successful one.

“(T)he emulsions Sutton was using to make the images were insensitive to red light. Luckily, however, the red fabric in the tartan ribbon also reflected ultraviolet, and this had been recorded on the red plate, producing the right result for the wrong reasons.”

Subsequent experimenters got the emulsions right. Although we no longer use plates, and even paper prints are becoming obsolete, photography, and color photography overwhelmingly, are far from dying out. Dozens of photo service online and on our phones allow us to capture, crop and filter and post photos from wherever we are. Whether they are as powerful or as quality as once they were is uncertain. That the process Maxwell pioneered has made its digital transition robustly is not.

Take a moment today to thank Maxwell for allowing us to transition from this:

Oldest surviving photo: Nicéphore Niépce’s 1826 “View from the Window at Le Gras”

To this:


Tartan ribbon photo via Wikimedia Commons, View from the Window from Wikimedia Commons

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