Since the beginning, everyone wanted color photographs. Images being black and white only was a chief complaint about photography. Initially, there were a few “successes”; Sir John Herschel was able to record blue, green and red on paper coated with a silver chloride solution, but he was unable to “fix” (make it permanent) it. This is very interesting as it was the first suggestion that color could be recorded directly on a chemically sensitive material just by the light itself. Levi Hill claimed to have created a permanent process in 1851 but failed to provide the photography world with directions to the process that worked so he was ultimately written off as a liar. Eventually, Hill admitted that he had stumbled upon color as an accident, but couldn’t figure out what exactly that accident had been. He failed to ever replicate color consistently. More legitimately, Niépce de Saint-Victor and Edmond Becquerel between the 1840’s and 1860’s managed to record colors on daguerreotypes. But like Herschel, they too were unable to fix the color into permanence.

RGB additive color

Officially, the first color “photograph” was created in 1861 by James Clerk Maxwell. He utilized the additive theory of physics (developed by Thomas Young and Hermann Helmholtz.) It stated that all colors of light can be created by combining different proportions of red, green, and blue light. As he was Scottish, Maxwell tested this by using a photo of a tartan. He photographed the tartan through a red filter, then took another one through a green filter, then a final photo through a blue filter. The photos were on glass plates. When he lined them up sandwiched together, he projected light through them. A color image was projected. Unfortunately this was also not permanently fixable on paper. It was a huge step in deliberately replicating color.

What Maxwell’s color “photograph” (which was actually a projection) looked like.

The first color film

Flash forward nearly 40 years to 1904 when the Lumière brothers patented a new additive color theory process they called Autochrome. The system started with a glass plate that was dusted with extremely small pieces of potato starch. These pieces of potato starch had been dyed orange, green, and blue-violet. After the dyed potato starch was down on the plate, they filled in any gaps with a fine dusting of black carbon. By this time, a better panchromatic emulsion (sensitive to all colors of light) had been developed. This emulsion was put on top of the potato starch and carbon. The plate was then exposed from the back, so the potato starch and carbon acted as filters. After exposure, the plate was developed, then rexeposed to light, then redeveloped and resulted in a positive transparency. The potato starches formed tiny dots of primary colors that blended together to form a color tonality. This was the first process that was able to be viably produced, replicated, and used commercially. The technology was even being used by National Geographic by the end of the first World War to make their color reproductions.

An autochrome of a WWI plane circa 1917.