A Short History of Color Photography
To talk about color photography in an era of countless filters, photo apps and high-quality cameras on pretty much every mobile phone nowadays perhaps seems like an obsolete thing to do, but what if we told you that the true evolution of the medium in this field came only a few decades ago? In the 200-years-old history of photo-making this might come as a surprise, although it should be mentioned that the experiments started as far as the 1840s and continued through both 19th and 20th century; this also explains why most of the pictures we know from the past are black and white, or in some cases sepia. Even today, contemporary photographers are finding ways to experiment with color photography, expanding their vision and methods within the digital realm, just like their predecessors did with film and analogue cameras. The road to this point, however, was paved with many primarily scientific discoveries, led by a number of figures we have to thank for the vibrant, vivid image-making we know and love today.
The Development of Color Photography – The Great Minds of the 19th Century
In the 1830s, the world got the very first photograph ever taken – the famous view from the window at Le Gras, taken by the great Nicéphone Niépce. It was a remarkable event in arts, because there was finally a way to capture reality exactly as it is. However, this was a grainy and colorless picture, still quite unable to capture all the splendor of the scenery; because of technological limits, it took Niépce several days of exposure to make it, so we can only imagine all the colors he would have caught. Still, the camera of the moment successfully captured light, and those who came after Niépce realized that light is exactly what they need to examine further, in order to harness all the colors associated with it.
The early experiments in color photography came shortly after the medium itself was invented, in the beginning of the 1840s. The goal was to find a material which would assume the colors of the light falling on it; the most successful among them was the projection of solar spectrum directly onto the sensitive surface, although it again asked for several hours, and even days, of exposure. In 1856, minister Levi Hill released the first official process of achieving color using daguerreotypes, although it was incredibly complicated and thus regarded as useless. His method is now known as “Hillotype” and it has been confirmed that he would embellish his photos after to make them more vivid. Around the same time, Edmond Becquerel managed to achieve better results, although he couldn’t prevent the colors from quickly fading when the images were exposed to light for viewing. Yet it wasn’t until the 1880s that the first practical technique appeared, guided by an entirely different approach to color.
The Power of Physics by Gabriel Lippmann
In 1891, physicist Gabriel Lippmann proudly announced to the Academy of Sciences: ”I have succeeded in obtaining the image of the spectrum with its colors on a photographic plate whereby the image remains fixed and can remain in daylight without deterioration.” Indeed, he is considered the inventor of a method based on the interference phenomenon, which even earned him a Nobel Prize in 1908. His technique, based on the propagation of waves and containing no additional dyes or pigments, produced admirable imagery of a multicolored parrot, a bowl of oranges with a red poppy on top, a group of flags and perhaps the most famous one of a stained glass window. He projected an image onto a special photographic plate capable of recording detail smaller than the wavelengths of visible light.
The First Durable Color Photograph by James Clerk Maxwell
In truth, Lippmann’s process was a bit too complex: it required fine-grained high-resolution emulsions that needed longer exposure times, it had trouble with the broader bands of wavelength colors created by reflections, and the process required the use of toxic mercury. On the other hand, another physicist but from Scotland, James Clerk Maxwell, proposed that we take photographs through red, green and blue filters – an idea that stands on strong feet even today. His technique referred to virtually all practical colors processed whether chemical or electronic and was first suggested in 1855. In 1861, Thomas Sutton made the first colorful photograph of a bow made of ribbon, using red, green and blue filters.
The 20th Century and the Kodak Revolution
The first commercially successful color process appeared on the market in 1907, when the French Lumière brothers, by then famous in the world of cinema, introduced the Lumière Autochrome. Their method involved special plates which, however, cost about as much as a dozen black-and-white plates of the same size. Nevertheless, millions of Autochrome plates were manufactured and used for a couple of decades, before the film-based versions appeared in the 1930s. The photographers of the early 20th century also had two types of color cameras at their disposal: one using a lens that could separate the incoming light through three different filters, thus taking three photographs at the same time, and the other introducing still exposed images one a time, but with a drop back that allowed photographers to quickly swap out filters and emulsion types. Because it was all still very complicated, Louis Ducos du Hauron proposed the “sandwich” of colors, which would have blue on top, followed by green and red sensitive layers. His arrangement, however, softened the light as it passed through each layer.
The Color films of Agfa and Kodak
The “tripack” suggested by Louis Ducos du Hauron eventually found its purpose when the American company Eastman Kodak released the first modern “integral tripack” color film under the now famous name of Kodachrome. It had three layers of emulsion coated on a single base, each layer recording one of the three additive primaries, red, green, and blue. After introducing the iconic “you press the button, we do the rest” slogan, they asked that the film is simply loaded into the camera, exposed in the ordinary way, then mailed to Kodak for processing. In 1936, Kodak introduced the film as 8mm home movie film and 35mm for still photography, suggesting that now anyone can make color photography of their own.
That same year, the German Agfa released their own integral tripack film called Agfacolor Neu, which had an important advantage: they found a way to incorporate the dye couplers into the emulsion layers during manufacture, allowing all three layers to be developed at the same time and greatly simplifying the processing. Strangely enough, even though Agfa, and later many other manufacturers, offered the services the easier way, the world later only used Kodak’s modified development the most.
That Kodak and Agfa brought color photography to the masses is an indisputable fact, but what is also true is that the film was still quite expensive, compared to the black-and-white one. Furthermore, there were also difficulties to shoot in color indoors without the use of flash bulbs, which is why shades of gray still dominated the photographic image-making of the 1950s and even 1960s. By 1970s, however, the prices were finally coming down, film sensitivity improved, and color became a norm for snapshot-taking, nearly pushing black-and-white film completely out of use. Let us not forget the introduction of Instant color film by Polaroid in 1963, which also contributed to the popularity of vibrant imagery of the period.
The Digital Era
With the arrival of the first digital camera in 1975, it was clear that it would represent the advanced mixture of all previously gathered experience in color photography in light of the uprising technological era. Steven Sasson, an engineer at Eastman Kodak, used a CCD digital image sensor previously invented by George Smith and Willard Boyle as the backbone of the 3.6kg (8 pound) device, which nevertheless captured black and white images to a cassette tape in approximately 23 seconds of exposure. That same year, Bryce Bayer invented the Bayer Color Filter Array, which enabled a single CCD or CMOS image sensor to capture colorful images; without it, registering colors would require three separate sensors attached to a beam splitter, which would be both large and expensive. The BCFAs are used in almost every digital camera made today as well. Throughout the 1980s, many camera manufacturers like Konica, Leica, Sony, Pentax, Fuji, Nikon, Canon and of course Kodak all began introducing smaller and compact cameras with more and more advanced sensors, lenses and memory/storage for a wider use, eventually leading towards today’s most developed cameras and mobile phone lenses.
Another important aspect of both digital and color photography is the fact that colors could now also be enhanced with the use of editing softwares, to the point of complete exclusion of physical photographic prints. In 1990, Adobe released Photoshop 1.0, making it the second digital editing software (after Digital Darkroom) available for Macintosh computers.
Color Theory in Digital Photography
Pioneers and Legends of Colors in Photographs
Of course, as the medium witnessed the technological improvements brought mainly by curious scientists, photographers were there to pick up on their work, polish it with imagination and put it to use. Whether it’s candid snapshots, fashion shootings, photojournalism or fine art, color photography finally overthrew its black-and-white sibling and became the primary interest of many artists. At the beginning of this upheaval, the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, photographers Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz and William Eggleston explored the saturated colors of freshly available processes to the fullest, producing memorable imagery of still lifes and street scenery we all know and love today. In fact, the first major survey of color photography came in 1976, with Eggleston’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and the genre then expanded through the works of the Dusseldorf School of Photography, particularly through Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff. Colors are also integral in the field of abstract photography, one of the most popular genres of the medium today. While black and white image-making brings out the dramatic and the nostalgic, colors evoke emotion in a very particular way, and when done right, these images become examples of the finest artworks out there.
Robert Hirsch’s Exploring Color Photography is the thinking photographer’s guide to color image-making. Now in its sixth edition, this pioneering text clearly and concisely instructs students and intermediate photographers in the fundamental aesthetic and technical building blocks needed to create thought-provoking digital and analog color photographs. Taking both a conceptual and pragmatic approach, the book avoids getting bogged down in complex, ever-changing technological matters, allowing it to stay fresh and engaging. Known as the Bible of Color Photography, its stimulating assignments encourage students to be adventurous and to take responsibility for learning and working independently. The emphasis on design and postmodern theoretical concepts stresses the thought process behind the creation of intriguing images.
- Coe, B,, Colour Photography: the first hundred years 1840-1940, Ash & Grant, 1978.
- Coote, J., The Illustrated History of Colour Photography, Fountain Press Ltd., 1993
- Penichon, S. (2013), Twentieth-Century Color Photographs: Identification and Care, Getty Publications, Los Angeles
- Sipley, L. W., A Half Century of Color, Macmillan, 1951
Featured images: Thomas Ruff – Substract 33 II, 2007, via Galleria Lia Rumma; Joel Meyerowitz – Red Interior, Provincetown, 1977; Stephen Shore – West 9th Avenue, Amarillo, Texas, October 2, 1974; William Eggleston – Untitled (Photograph of Child on Bureau), Sumner, MS, 1970 [From Dust Bells 2], all via Edwynn Houk Gallery; Philip-Lorca diCorcia – Mario, 1978, courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York; Nickolas Muray – Christmas Cakes and Cookies, ca. 1935, © Nickolas Muray Archives. Courtesy George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, NY. All images used for illustrative purposes only.