Saturday, September 09, 2006

early colour photography

Certain kinds of old photos give me the feeling that I have a brief glimpse into a past era. I have the same experience when watching certain kinds of old movies. For example, a couple of nights ago I saw The Apartment (1960) for the first time. Wow! What a fascinating look at how urban office culture has changed over the past half century: the megalomaniac boss who could fire his secretary if he got tired of sleeping with her and the only black character being the kow-towing shoeshine boy. But even better for me were the settings and other visuals. And did you know that TV remote controls existed in the 1950s? Jack Lemmon was the original channel surfer, knobs, wires and all.

But back to the photos. As far as I knew, colour photography didn't exist until the mid-1930s (Kodachrome was introduced in 1935). This photo, taken of my dad around 1930, is what most people knew of colour photography at the time: colourisation. Much as I love these old portraits, the staged aspect of them reveals little more than what was popular in conventional portrait photography at the time. Anyway, it turns out that the earliest experiments in colour photography date back to the 1860s! Various not-very-user-friendly methods were experimented with over the next few decades but very little evidence of them remains.

One method, invented before 1910 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, was really black and white photography using a clever filter system. It involved three separate monochrome exposures ('separation negatives') of a still scene through red, green, and blue filters. The following is a group of Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war, taken around 1915. "The men are probably Poles, Ukrainians, and members of other Slavic nationalities, imprisoned at an unidentified location in the far north of European Russia near the White Sea."

There are some more fascinating WWI photos from this recent article. I'm so used to seeing the grainy black and white war images of this era that it's almost surreal to see them in colour. Same for photos of people living in a pre-industrial culture. Look at how vivid the dresses are on these peasant girls. And I thought life was all dreary and muddy back then! :)

More on Prokudin-Gorskii here. And if these early photos bring out the capitalist in you, go here.

Once again thanks to Rudy -- this time for sending me the link from


Blogger CeCe said...

Those are some neat photos!

9/9/06 12:38 p.m.  
Blogger albina said...

Wow, this is so very interesting -- the process, the time... and those dresses. You are right, just because we were seeing most of that time period in black and white, hard to believe everything had as much color as we see today! Great article -- thanks for educating us in spite of ourselves!

10/9/06 6:16 p.m.  
Blogger Within Without said...

Was that a fart that Elvis led off that song with? Sorry, couldn't help it.

Love him. Interesting history perspective, btw

10/9/06 7:22 p.m.  
Blogger andrea said...

Hey you three: thanks for reading -- even if you only read the pictures. I thought it was a fascinating bit of history I'd uncovered, just following my nose from the starting point, but seems I'm in the minority. Guess I'll get more people reading if I can learn to transcribe Elvis's farts, right WW? :)

11/9/06 4:25 p.m.  
Blogger Within Without said...

Sorry, A, no offence...I'm more a here and now guy. No doubt it was fascinating.

Farts: Now that's my area of expertise. But it doesn't guarantee a readership.

Stick with whatcha been doin. It's great. It's you.

11/9/06 5:16 p.m.  
Blogger ValGalArt said...

Fascinating post and I love the picture of your Dad!

15/9/06 5:22 p.m.  
Anonymous Nabeel said...

Yes these are pretty amazing .. i wonder what technology they used to make them colored.

17/9/06 1:49 p.m.  

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