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Michael Jennings on the surprisingly long history of colour photography

Michael Jennings has a fascinating posting up at his own blog about the introduction of colour photography, the point being that it was very gradual.

When you look into this a little, it is possible to find brilliant, clear, full colour photographs from the last decades of the 19th century. The reason for this is relatively simple, which is that if you can take black and white photographs you can take colour photographs. Just split the image into three, run one through a blue filter, one through a green filter, and one through a red filter and record each image on a piece of film (or actually, at the time, on a glass negative). You have three images. Given those three images you have everything you need to print a colour photograph. However, designing a suitable process through which you can print that colour photograph clearly was initially a little tricky, and 19th century colour photographs could not be readily and accurately printed in the 19th century. However, they can be printed today, and I have seen some spectacular colour photographs from the 19th century, which are as clear and beautiful as photographs taken any time since. (In particular, I once saw a wonderful collection of photographs of Russia, but I cannot find any online).

Michael goes on to say that perhaps the decisive moment in this story, if there was such a thing, was when colour television arrived on the scene in the nineteen sixties. That was when black and white rather suddenly came to seem old fashioned. That was when they stopped making black and white movies, even though they had been making some movies in colour for about a quarter of a century.

But the titbit that got my attention was that bit about colour photographs taken in Russia over a hundred years ago, despite them not knowing how to print them on paper. Michael says he could not find any of these photos online. Can anyone in our ultra-knowledgeable commentariat do better than that? It would be fascinating to see such photographs, if they are anywhere to be seen.

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11 comments to Michael Jennings on the surprisingly long history of colour photography

  • hylas

    I think that this. must be it.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Wow that was quick.

    Thanks hylas. And I’m sure Michael J will join me in saying that.

    Now I’m going to look at them.

  • Absolutely certainly I am. Thank you hylas. Either the blogosphere is a wonderful thing, or my googling skills are in decline, or both. But these photographs are just amazing, and I am glad I can look at them again, even if I did get the dates slightly wrong. They are mostly (very) early 20th century rather than late 19th. However, there is not theoretical reason why this process could not have been used at least a couple of decades earlier. (This is not to criticise the ingeniousness of the inventor of this device – it was extraordinarily clever whenever it was made). We simply here had a Russian photographer with extraordinary foresight.

  • Brian Micklethwait


    I’m up watching the Superbowl but you are probably in bed by now. When you wake up, can you answer a question about timing. In your original posting you talked about “the last decades of the nineteenth century”, yet the photos hylas has linked us all to seem to have been taken in the early twentieth century. Yet these were the exact photos you were thinking of, right?

    What I’m also asking is, I suppose, are there any colour photos from even earlier than these ones?

    Meanwhile, I’ve looked at these ones and they are indeed absolutely astonishing. Thanks again hylas.

  • I have added an update to my original piece These are indeed the photographs I was thinking of. The simplest answer is that my memory was faulty and I dated the photographs incorrectly. As I couldn’t find them, I was unable to check.

    However, it gets more complicated. The reason I failed to find them was because I googled from something like “Color photographs Russia 19th century”, and they were not actually 19th century. I think the reason I assumed they were 19th century was because this was all poaaible in the 19th century.

    However, there is another mystery. this page discusses the techniques used in taking and displaying these photographs. One of the illustrations is of a three lamp lantern projector of the sort used for the projection of Prokudin-Gorskii’s colour photographs around the time it was taken. Except that the picture of the projector is dated 1889. This suggests there must have been something to project in full colour in 1889. And it also appears that Prokudin-Gorskii’s learned a fair bit from a German named Adolf Meithe, but finding out stuff about him seems difficult because it is all in German.

    So the question as to when colour photography was invented is up in the air. There aren’t any earlier full colour photos that I know of, but I can’t rule the possibility out. There is no technical reason why such photos could not have been taken.

    And I agree with everyone else that these particular photographs are extraordinarily magnificent.

  • Damn you all! I actually have a post on that archive from a while back where I mistakenly called the photos “colorized.”

    The whole archive is unbelievable. I think there are about 2,000 images. I’m a bit of a Central Asia nut, so seeing pictures pre-Russification of the Bukharan Emirate and Russian Turkestan is amazing.

  • Antoine Clarke

    the Lumière brothers who pioneered cinema also made early colour photographs. I once saw a print of one of the first colour photos they took: a full frontal nude in a sexy pose. It was porn!

    As always with all publishing and media: the porn industry gets in early!

  • Scott Cattanach

    cool pics

  • Peter Hutchison

    In the same google page that I found this page I found some others. Try


    and you will find pictures from the 1890s by Lippman. Sorry but there is no porn or even plain nudity.

  • Peter Hutchison

    In the same google page that I found this page I found some others. Try


    and you will find pictures from the 1890s by Lippman. Sorry but there is no porn or even plain nudity.

  • Peter Hutchison

    Sorry for the double postig. Your system told me I had not got the code right and to try again