11 March 2009

Some of the world's first color photographs

Beginning in 1910 Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii used color photography to document the Russian Empire. He made black-and-white exposures with red, green and blue filters, then combined those images in the laboratory to create a color image.

More recently, the Library of Congress has purchased 1,900 of these photos, many of which are stored at Wikimedia.

All of the photos above are from the period 1910-1915, and are thus among the world's first color photos.
  • Young Russian peasant women in front of traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River near the small town of Kirillov.
  • A. P. Kalganov poses with his son and granddaughter… Kalganov displays traditional Russian dress and beard styles, while the two younger generations have more Westernized, modern dress and hair styles.
  • Windmills on the Siberian plain.
  • Fabric merchant near Samarkand.
  • Alim Khan, emir of Bukhara.
  • Uzbek woman at entrance to yurt in Turkestan.
Addendum: The "autochrome" process actually preceded the one shown above; examples are shown at Titam et le Sirop d'Erable.

And before THAT, of course, the world only existed in black and white.

Update - See the Comments for additional corrections and clarifications re the early history of color photography.


  1. This is beautiful. If I may add something, the first photographs in colors date back to 1903, with the invention of the "autochrome" process by the Lumière Brothers. The process would not require any after work in studio to recreate the color image.

    1. FALSE. The first colored photograph dates back to 1861.

  2. This is mind-blowing. I always imagined that period in black and white. You mean to say that a hundred years ago, the world was already in color? ;-)

  3. Actually, the Lumière brothers brought out the autochrome process in 1896. But, even more astounding, there was a process of color photo printing called Photochrome (it wasn't a question of having a color emulsion, but of taking separate photos through different color filters, then printing them together) which allowed for color photographs much earlier in the nineteenth century. There's an exhibit in Paris of such photos dating back to 1876.

  4. Taking advantage of being in an advanced time zone, I get to post a clarification. I was relying on the French Wiki in stating that the Lumière brothers had invented autochrome in 1896. I haven't been able to find a confirmation of that date. It's not unreasonable, given the patent issued in 1903, that they had invented the process some years earlier. I have found an example of an experimental autochrome plate around 1900, but can't produce any solid evidence earlier. Sorry. The Photochrome story stands, though.

  5. Well, some mistakes need correction.
    I. Gorsky learned the technique from Miethe in Germany. Miethe's camera began being marketed in 1903-04.

    II. The three-color process is earlier than Miethe however. Ives, an American, commercialized the process in 1888 and marketed it in 1892. Prior to that, it was was experimental with the first demonstration being in England in 1869.

    III. Leon Vidal in Paris did commercialized another three-color method used primarily for printing around the same time as Ives but it's use was primarily confined to printing. Photochrom and Photochromes are two different methods.

    IV. The autochrome was patent in 1903 but did not make it to market till 1907. Plates were much in demand and, unless one where in France at that time, the plates didn't become available in the US and the UK till 1908.

    V. The Lumiere Brothers did have a two earlier color processes before the autochrome. One was based on the Lippmann process and the other was based on bichromated gelatin. Neither was really related to the autochrome.

    VI. The theoretical underpinning of all these processes, except the Lippmann process, can be credited to Du Hauron and Charles Cros, both Frenchmen.

  6. The earliest permanent true-colour photograph ever was actually taken in 1861: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/Tartan_Ribbon.jpg
    This photograph of the French physicist Gabriel Lippmann is the earliest true-colour photograph of a human being available on the Web; it was taken in 1892: http://blog.uncovering.org/archives/uploads/2008/08013101_blog.uncovering.org_lippmann.jpg
    Some breath-takingly accurate, beautiful early autochromes can be seen on this page: http://sechtl-vosecek.ucw.cz/en/expozice10/autochromy-smirous.html

  7. Marc:
    Can you say more about the Paris exhibit you refer to above? I'm trying to find it.

  8. I would like to stress (with no offence intended to Marc) that the Photochrome is a method of artificially colouring a photograph originally in black and white. It is by no means a natural-colour process.

  9. wow, their dress is so vibrant and unique. It's amazing we have insights like this into the past.

  10. they dont even look like there from the past wow why did we have to go through life viewing boring black and white seeing people like they were living on a different planet when we had color all along!


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