10 Times History Was Captured in Living Color

The History Blog
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People have been trying to capture color images since Louis Daguerre first pointed a lens at a street and waited 10 minutes for the plate to expose. While black and white dominated the first century of photography, there were photographers and filmmakers who successfully experimented with color processes. Their work today transcends the grays and sepias that separate us from even the very recent past, and brings it vividly into the present.


The first commercially successful color photography system was patented in 1903 by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who you might remember from such hits as 1895's Sortie de l'usine Lumière de Lyon, the first projected moving picture. The Autochrome color photography technique patented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 applied a mosaic of potato starch grains dyed blue-violet, green, and orange-red to one side of a glass plate, which acted as a filter. The filtered light passed through the starch onto a silver halide emulsion. Once developed, the plates produced soft, pointillist images still beloved by artists today.

Marketed to the public starting in 1907, the Autochrome process was an immediate success and staved off the competition for about 30 years. As they did with the Cinematograph, the brothers deployed their new technology on themselves and their families first. Above are Auguste and Louis posing with crochet and umbrella in 1906; you can see Louis's daughter Suzette taking full advantage of the color red in 1910 at the top of this post.


Fr. near City Hall looking NE, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonianís National Museum of Natural History
Fr. near City Hall looking NE, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonianís National Museum of Natural History /
Market St. Flood Bldg., 1906, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonianís National Museum of Natural History
Market St. Flood Bldg., 1906, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonianís National Museum of Natural History /

In the six months after the April 18, 1906, earthquake that devastated San Francisco, photographic innovator Frederic Eugene Ives took advantage of the eerily empty streets to take stereoscopic pictures with a process of his invention. The machinery was complicated, exposures took hours, and the finished pictures—pairs of glass slides for each primary color bundled in a specific order called the Kromogram—could only be viewed through a Kromskop, a dedicated viewing device that, at $50, was prohibitively expensive for most people.

Ives abandoned the Kromogram after the Lumière brothers introduced their much more user-friendly Autochrome process. The photographs Ives took of the rubble field of 1906 San Francisco were donated to the Smithsonian Institution by his son Herbert, but were left uncatalogued until 2010, when volunteer Anthony Brooks at the National Museum of American History found them. The Kromogram color plates layered together in Photoshop give us a chance to see what only Kromskop viewers could see in 1906.

Sutter St. Looking East from Top of Majestic Hall, Oct. 1906, Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonianís National Museum of Natural History
Sutter St. Looking East from Top of Majestic Hall, Oct. 1906, Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonianís National Museum of Natural History /
Fr. Van Ness Ave. City Hall R., 1906, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonianís National Museum of Natural History
Fr. Van Ness Ave. City Hall R., 1906, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonianís National Museum of Natural History /


British photographer Edward Raymond Turner worked for Ives in 1898 shortly after Ives had devised the Kromogram process. Turner figured out how to apply Ives' three-color additive system to moving pictures by patenting a movie camera with a rotating wheel of red, green, and blue filters in front of the lens. It recorded one frame of film three times, once in each color, which would then be superimposed simultaneously onto the screen by the projector.

It wasn't until after Turner's sudden death in 1903 at the age of 29 that his successor, George Albert Smith, figured out all of this would be a lot easier if they just dropped the blue. He also figured out his films would look a lot better if they were heavy on the red and green. Smith patented his two-color Kinemacolor system in 1906. This tartan porn from that same year underscores how great two colors can look when the subject is well chosen.


Russian chemist and photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was one of the few photographers the Lumière Brothers gave a sneak preview of Autochrome to in 1906. Prokudin-Gorsky had his own process by then, a three-color additive system that shot each of three black-and-white photographs through a red, green, or blue filter. The projector ran through filters of the same color, superimposing the three images on top of each other. It was like a less awkward version of the Kromogram and the results were then, and remain today, exquisite. He took the first color portrait in Russia of author Leo Tolstoy in 1908, seen above.

Tsar Nicholas II was such a fan he gave Prokudin-Gorsky a railroad-car darkroom and passepartout permits and sent him off to wander the empire like Kane in Kung Fu. Between 1909 and 1915, Sergey photographed the people, places, landmarks, and industry of pre-revolutionary Russia.


The ancient Nabatean city of Petra in modern-day Jordan is also known as the Rose City because of the pink hue of the living rock out of which it was so artfully hewn. The same year Autochrome was first put on the market, it was used to take this photograph of Al Khazneh, a.k.a. The Treasury, a.k.a. the place where the aged crusader knight was waiting for Indiana Jones to choose wisely.

This was one of thousands of pictures taken by the Photographic Division of the utopian American Colony in Jerusalem, a Christian community that dedicated itself to helping the destitute and ill of all faiths with no attempts at conversion. One of the ways they supported themselves was by the sale of photographs of the Holy Land and environs, for which they became famous around the world.


French army officer Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud was an accomplished photographer and close friend of the Lumière brothers. He helped them test the Autochrome process years before it was sold to the public. When World War I broke out in 1914, he was appointed director of France's Photographic and Cinematographic Service of the War, where he was uniquely positioned to capture French military life in color. The brilliant colors of the French uniform made for compelling Autochrome subjects. They were also deadly targets for enemy fire. After a few months of modern industrial warfare and a large cost in human life, the bright red trousers and indigo jackets were replaced by grayish blue field dress for the French Army and khaki for North African and colonial troops in early 1915.


Kinemacolor got a foothold in British movie theaters in pre-war years, but was ultimately knocked off its perch by William Friese-Greene, who had patented a two-color process called Biocolour in 1905. Friese-Greene successfully sued and after 1915 Kinemacolor was no more. Unfortunately Biocolour was beset by technical and financial problems. It was William's son Claude who would bring Biocolour into its own, improving the process and setting off on an epic car trip from Cornwall to Scotland in the mid-1920s, shooting film in the "new all British Friese-Greene natural colour process depicting the characteristic, natural and historical beauties of Great Britain's glorious homeland."

The British Film Institute recently restored the short films of The Open Road, cleaning some of the uncomfortable artifacts of the two-color process, like flickering and contrasting color outlines.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Lancashire (1926):

Goldfish in the The Roman Baths in Bath, Somerset (1924):

Outstanding Cameos of London (1926):


Two-color processes could be more effective in still photography because there was no flicker problem. The Eastman Kodak Company experimented with two-color photography. In fact, the first iteration of what would become the classic color film, Kodachrome, was a two-color process. Invented by Eastman Kodak researcher John Capstaff in 1914, the first Kodachrome was particularly great at capturing realistic flesh tones, as can be seen in this portrait of George Eastman, founder of the company and color photography enthusiast.

Photographer Joseph D'Anunzio captured Mr. Eastman looking like a Boardwalk Empire extra with his starched collar and pinned tie on September 2, 1914. Again, subject color selection is key to how great this picture looks even today. The Capstaff Kodachrome couldn't produce a full spectrum of color and so it was never marketed to the public. Autochrome was still king, and would remain the premiere color photography process for 20 more years until chemical color on film replaced glass plates. That color film was Kodachrome, second of its name.


Officially a celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition had a more personal significance to its host city, San Francisco. It announced to the world that the city, almost destroyed by earthquake and fire nine years earlier, was back in business. Indeed, there is no comparison between the group of 40 Autochrome photographs in the National Museum of American History taken at the Panama Pacific Exposition by an unknown photographer and Frederick Ives' scenes of devastation.


Technicolor is most often associated with epic blockbusters in deeply saturated brilliant colors like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, but they came relatively late in the game. A two-strip red and green Technicolor process was first invented in 1916. With the European film industry hobbled by war and Kinemacolor out of the picture, Technicolor became the dominant color process for film. It was used to memorable effect in silent pictures like Lon Chaney's 1925 tour de force The Phantom of the Opera where the scene of the masquerade ball is filmed in Technicolor.

Two-strip Technicolor wasn't just for big budget movies, though. Small producers like New York-based Fashion Features Inc. draped its models/starlets in glorious color for a newsreel showcasing the looks of the Spring 1927 season.

All images courtesy of The History Blog