04 Mar THE OLDEST COLOR PHOTOS EVER: PICTURES TAKEN USING A METHOD INVENTED BY TWO BROTHERS USING DYED GRAINS OF POTATO STARCH SHOWED THE WORLD IN COLOR FOR THE FIRST TIME
- Color photography was one of the many technological advancements that came from the early 20th century
- The Autochrome Lumiere process was invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1907 in Lyon, France
- The method involved the isolation of potato starch, which was then dyed various colors and dripped on a glass pane, which was then inserted into any camera
At the dawn of the 20th century, strides being made in technology were allowing for the impossible to become possible. One advancement was the development of color photography – which quickly took the world by storm.
Images of Kings from far away lands, muddied war trenches and the most innovative automobiles came to life using a method developed by two French brothers in 1907 called the Autochrome Lumiere.
It involved the use of materials considered archaic today, such as potato starch, and was extremely time consuming. But for decades, it was the only way photography could be seen in the way it existed in reality.
The invention of the Autochrome Lumiere in 1907 allowed color photos to be taken for the first time. The process was portable and universal, making it easy for photographers worldwide to take beautiful portraits of whomever they pleased. This photo, taken in the summer of 1908, was taken by Etehldreda Janet Laing of her two daughters
Autochrome was the primary method for taking color photographs from the time it was invented until better methods were invented in the 1930s. In this image from 1920, two women relax in a poppy field on the countryside of the French alps
The Autochrome method was made possible by uniquely designed glass planes that images were filtered through that were dotted with dyed grains of potato starch. They allowed images to appear as they were in real-life, such as this photo of Etheldreda Laing’s daughter in the garden of their family home, Bury Knowle
The exposure process for Autochrome images was longer than black-and-white because of the need for images to be filtered through both the potato starch pane and a second yellow filter. This photo is of Austrian chemist Dr Friedrich Fritz Paneth’s two children
The long exposure time made it difficult to photograph any moving subject – and making the people and animals in photos stay still was often not easy. This image was taken by another photographer who excelled at Autochrome, John Cimon Warburg
The Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, already established themselves as game-changers in the media realm before their foray into color photography.
The two were among the first filmmakers in the world. In 1895, they invented a cinematograph, which allowed, for the first time, an audience of more than one person to see a moving picture.
The cinematograph was a hit – and the brothers eventually went on tour with a series of 10 short French films, each lasting about 50 seconds long.
Despite its success, the Lumieres did not believe that the film industry was one that would be long lasting. They were once quoted as saying: ‘the cinema is an invention without any future’.
They decided to focus their attention more on the development of color photography – and before long, they’d patented their own process: the Autochrome Lumiere.
The process is quite complex – and involved the construction of a glass disk dotted with tiny dots of potato starch dyed red-orange, green, and blue-violet, appearing like a mosaic.
Over a long period of exposure, the light being reflected through the colored starch would be impressed on the printed photo, and would relay what appeared in real life.
The process took much longer than a regular black and white photo would, so the photography of moving objects or people was quite difficult.
The Lumiere brothers, prior to inventing the Autochrome method, were already revolutionary in the film industry, having invented one of the first cinematographs. Pictured here is a Lanchester 29 horsepower limousine in 1911
However, the Lumiere brothers didn’t think that the cinema industry was one that would be long-lasting, so they switched gears to focus on color photography. Seen here in a Lanchester 38 horsepower tourer in 1913
The introduction of color photography allowed the brutal truths of war to be seen in their full effect. Here, in 1917, a French section of machine gunners was captured by Fernand Cuville after taking position in the ruins during the battle of the Aisne in the Western front during the First World War
The Autochrome method began to take off at the dawn of the First World War, which allowed the tragic conflict to be documented in color. Here, in 1917, a French observation post with three soldiers in a trench reinforced with wooden beams and sand bags close to the German lines
The process was taken all over the world during the historic war. In Italy, the Caio Duilio Italian battleship is pictured
A French military cemetery is pictured in color for the first time here in September 1916 on the Western Front after the Battle of Verdun in a photo taken by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont
HOW DOES THE AUTOCHROME METHOD WORK?
The first process for developing color photography was invented by the Lumiere brothers, Louis and Auguste, in Lyon, France in 1907
The first process for developing color photography was invented by the Lumiere brothers, Louis and Auguste, in Lyon, France in 1907.
They developed the technology by building colored plates made from dyed potato starch which served as early lenses. The brothers had their own factory in their hometown where they built the starch plates en masse.
Before the starch could be used on the glass plane, it first had to go through a complex process of being filtered through sieves to break down the grains into dimensions measuring thousands of a millimeter wide. According to the National Media Museum, many different types of potatoes were used, but the brothers learned over time that the humble potato was best.
The grains were then separated into groups and died different colors: primarily, red, green, and blue-violet. The colored batches were then spread across the glass plane, and coated with carbon black charcoal powder to fill in the gaps.
The plane was used as a filter to create the color photos by being inserted into any camera with the plain glass side facing the camera lens. When a photo was captured, it would endure a long exposure process – about 30 minutes per picture. During that time, the image exposed to a yellow filter than would cancel out the blueness emitted from the camera, and would thus be more accurate.
Coupled with the potato starch dyes, the resulting image would be that of the true colors seen in real life.
When the ability to colorize photos was taken outside of the Western hemisphere, it opened more doors to better understanding of the world previously unimaginable.
Wonders of the world could be seen in all their speldor, like the Pyramids of Egypt and King David’s tower near the Jaffa gate in Jerusalem. Children were photographed in the desert, mounting camels that sat in the hot white sand.
The coronation of the Monivong, the King of Cambodia, was captured in 1928 – as he is seen being carried on a palankeen, a covered carriage without wheels.
Harder times could be seen in their harsh glory as well: such as French machine gunners during the battle of the Aisne in the First World War, and military cemeteries lined with white crosses and sparsely surrounded with trees and shrubs.
When the ability to colorize photos was taken outside of the Western hemisphere, it opened more doors to better understanding of the world previously unimaginable. In Cambodia in 1928, the King Monivong is seen at his coronation being carried in a palankeen
A hot day in Egypt is captured in this photo by Austrian doctor Friedrich Fritz Paneth, who began traveling after the accession of the Nazis in 1933
Finally, the wonders of the world could be seen in all their speldor. King Monivong is pictured left after his coronation, and right, a man who appears to be a monk walks in the sun
In 1913, Dr Friedrich Paneth snapped a color photo of his wife Else on a camel with several Egyptian children as the two traveled through the country
Some of the most historic buildings in the world were seen in color, such as King David’s tower near the Jaffa gate in Jerusalem in 1920
Quickly, the Autochrome Lumiere process became hugely popular in France, England, and America. Photographers took their new knowledge around the world, and brought back images of cultures never seen in color before.
Because the Lumiere brothers had made the Autochrome technique portable, photography subjects could range from a working class family spending the day on the beach to the most revered writers and artists in the world.
One of the first influential photographers Alvin Langdon Coburn used the Lumiere method to immortalize some of the most renowned names in history, such as Mark Twain, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Henri Matisse.
One less notable subject recently became a source of international mystery – a beautiful blonde young woman in a red sweater who gazed dreamily towards the ocean.
In the photos taken by legendary photography Mervyn O’Gorman, she was known only as ‘Christina’ – and her identity was unknown for more than a century before being discovered in 2015.
She was always thought to be the daughter of the photographer himself – but she was later revealed to be the daughter of a philosopher and friend of O’Gorman, and was finally given a full name: Christina Elizabeth Frances Bevan.
The pictures were taken in 1913 in Lulworth Cove, Dorset, England. Ms Bevan died in 1981, having never been married and remained in anonymity while her photo was in the hands of the Royal Photographic Society.
One less notable subject recently became a source of international mystery – a beautiful blonde young woman in a red sweater who gazed dreamily towards the ocean. In the photos taken by legendary photography Mervyn O’Gorman, she was known only as ‘Christina’ – and her identity was unknown for more than a century before being discovered in 2015
She was always thought to be the daughter of the photographer himself – but she was later revealed to be the daughter of a philosopher and friend of O’Gorman, and was finally given a full name: Christina Elizabeth Frances Bevan. The pictures were taken in 1913 in Lulworth Cove, Dorset, England. Ms Bevan died in 1981, having never been married and remained in anonymity while her photo was in the hands of the Royal Photographic Society
Photographs were taken of people from the highest realms of society to the lowest. Pictured here is Mark Twain, taken by photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn
In 1931, the Autochrome method became less frequently used after more efficient technology was developed, and the Kodachrome evolved as the most popular method for color photography.
Sharper images had the potential to be created – ending the dream-like soft creations produced by the Autocrome.
Today, as we take high-resolution images in a split second on iPhones and digital cameras – it’s crucial to remember they would never have existed had it not been for the Autocrome, and the Lumiere brothers.