This extraordinary color photography from the early 1900s brings history to life

Extraordinary color photography from the early 1900s

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Most people alive today take color photography completely for granted, but like so many technological advances of the 20th century, the concept was barely even in its infancy 100 years ago. 

In the early 1900s, color photography was not yet widely used nor accepted as a medium for fine art or commercial photography. Some early color photography experiments and innovations — including processes like Photochrom and Autochrome (which utilized potato starch, of all things!) — were starting to gain traction in the new century.

But, generally, color photography remained an extremely niche interest and was not widely adopted by professional photographers or the general public until the 1930s and 1940s, with more advanced and practical color film technology.

Here, we’ve collected a fascinating array of some of the first color photographs ever produced!

Site of Old Fort Bayou, Ocean Springs, Mississippi (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC
Photochrom print: Site of Old Fort Bayou, Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Vintage color photography using Photochrom

Photochrom: A 19th century development in color photography

The Photochrom color photography process was invented by Hans Jakob Schmid and later developed by Orell Füssli, a Swiss printing company, in the late 19th century. The process used a black-and-white film negative, which was then used to make a lithographic stone, a method to print color images, by using a series of color filters and sensitizing dyes.

The process produced high-quality, detailed and accurate color images, and was widely used for the production of postcards, lithographic prints, and other printed materials.

The Photochrom process was widely used in the late 19th and early 20th century for commercial and advertising photography, as well as in postcards and other printed materials. The process was phased out in the 1920s with the advent of more advanced and practical color film technology.

The following 17 images below features color photos taken all across the country right around the year 1900, and are all Photochrom prints from the old Detroit Publishing Company.

As a side note: We did not color correct or increase any contrast on these old color photographs, and present them to you here just as they were scanned by the Library of Congress.

A banana cart in New York (c1900)

A banana cart in New York (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

The walk at Palm Beach, Florida (c1898)

The walk at Palm Beach, Florida (c1898) Photochrom by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

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Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, seen from the ruins – Colorado (c1900)

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, from the ruins - Colorado (c1900) Photochrom by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

Colorado Round up on the Cimarron (c1900)

Colorado Round up on the Cimarron (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

Provo Falls, Utah

Provo Falls, Utah (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

Alligator Head, La Jolla California

Alligator Head, La Jolla California (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

Spring House, Shasta Springs, California (c1900)

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Spring House, Shasta Springs, California (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co

Staircase to the Capitol, Albany NY

Staircase to the Capitol, Albany NY (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

Mission San Antonio in Texas (c1900)

Mission San Antonio in Texas (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

Raisin drying racks in Southern California

Raisin drying racks in Southern California (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

The Golden Gate before the bridge, San Francisco

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The Golden Gate, San Francisco (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

Betsy Ross house, Philadelphia

Betsy Ross house, Philadelphia (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

Victorian home – Smiley Residence in Redlands, California

Smiley Residence in Redlands, California (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

The casino, Atlantic City, NJ (c1900)

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The casino, Atlantic City, NJ (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

An old house at Far Hills, NJ

Old house at Far Hills, NJ (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co via LOC

Hotel Green, Pasadena, California (c1900)

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Hotel Green, Pasadena, California (c1900) Photochrom print by Detroit Publishing Co

All of the photos above were Photochrom prints made by Detroit Publishing Co., provided by the US Library of Congress.

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Vintage color photography using Autochrome

Autochrome: Potato starch magic (really!)

Autochrome is an early color photography process that was developed by the Lumière brothers in 1907. It used a plate coated with a layer of dyed potato starch grains, which acted as color filters. The plate was then exposed to light through a black-and-white image and processed to produce a full-color photograph. The autochrome process was relatively simple and inexpensive to produce, but the resulting images had a relatively low resolution and a limited color range.

Here, you can see some early color photos utilizing the potato — uh, Autochrome — technique, as well as a glowing and detailed review from 1908 of this exciting technological — and artistic! — color photography innovation.

About the new color photography (1908)

The remarkable negatives being made by local camera experts

Vintage article by Hanna Astrup Larsen – The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California) March 1, 1908

Color photography, that tantalizing will o’ the wisp which has eluded the grasp of its pursuers for a century, has been caught at last — and when firmly grasped, has proved itself not a delusion, but a gem that can be touched with the hand and examined with the eyes.

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) color photo Alvin Langdon Coburn (1908)
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) photographed in Autochrome on December 21, 1908 by Alvin Langdon Coburn

Of a gem-like radiance and purity were the examples of the new process which I saw in the studio of Oscar Maurer, the Berkeley artist, who is one of the first western men to give Lumiere’s invention a successful trial. There is no way yet of transferring the image to paper, but the plate itself, when hung against the light, is a unique and beautiful picture reflecting the image imprinted on it with all the delicacy of the old daguerreotype, but with a well of pure, rich color.

One of the pictures hung against the window pane in Maurer’s studio was that of the artist’s wife, dressed in a flowing ruby colored gown with a deep red flower in her hair and standing against a background of green grass and foliage. The fresh tones were of exquisite delicacy and the darker colors of the draperies and background had a depth and at the same time a luminous quality truly wonderful. The sunlight itself lived again in the picture.

One of the most successful plates is that of Marion Norton, the miniature painter. The colors in her draperies are of quite oriental brilliance, glowing with peacock blue, purple and yellow, harmoniously blended. A pretty picture is that of a little girl sitting on a brick wall. The white dress showing blue in the shadows, the little red cap surmounting yellow curls and blue eyes and the different red of the brick wall are all perfectly reproduced. The tiny features, the sunny smile and the curls are all outlined with marvelous fidelity.

The autochromatic plate that records color is yet made only by the inventor, Antoine Lumiere of Paris, and is imported by the few American photographers who have employed it successfully. Its use is quite simple, as an ordinary camera may be employed, but the difficulty is in gauging the exact length of time required in the exposure and in preventing the colors from running in the process of development.

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One problem with this color photography process remains

“Lumiere is working now on the problem of transferring the color image to paper,” said Mr Maurer, “and I should not be surprised to hear any day that he had succeeded. The sensitized paper that will take the color impression and retain it is not an impossible thing.”

So long as the impression cannot be conveyed to paper it is, of course, impossible to multiply pictures from one plate, and the invention has therefore not yet the commercial value that it will have when the last link is complete.

In the meantime, it is of tremendous interest, as showing what marvels can be done by the sunlight and as an earnest that the day will come when the most ordinary camera fiend can snap his subject in colors just as easily as he now takes it in black and white.

The picture as it now can be retained on the plate is perhaps even more beautiful than it could be if caught on paper, and for those who can afford to pay the price required in sacrificing one expensive plate to each picture I should think the fact that it could not be duplicated would give an added value. The glass picture bears the same relation to the paper image of the future that the old daguerreotype bore to the present photograph.

Don’t we all remember the little black cases with the gold frills and crimson velvet padding cradling the delicate, elusive, exclusive languages? It was only because we found them at the bottom of the treasure drawer in our mother’s writing desk that they charmed us, nor yet because they showed our grandmothers and aunts in the unsophisticated gowns of the day and with their hair in “curtains,” but also because the little portraits really had a distinct and distinguishing charm.

There is something of the same sunlight quality in the new colored photographs, but these have besides the beauty of the color and the added advantage of not dodging and eluding your eye. You can look their ethereal beauty right square in the face.

There is another likeness between the old and the new which differentiates them both from the intermediate stage of photography such as we have known it these many years. There is no retouching possible, for there is no brush so fine that it can safely be brought in contact with the infinitesimal particles that record the color on the autochromatic plate. So the sunlight is left to tell its story without slurring or evading.

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You remember in “The House of the Seven Gables,” when the young daguerreotypist, Holgrave, tells Phoebe of his efforts to make a portrait of her relative, Judge Pyncheon, that should give that pillar of society the amiable expression he commonly wore to the world, which the telltale sunlight baffled his efforts by bringing out unsuspected traits of cruelty, coldness and viciousness?

“There is a wonderful insight in heaven’s broad, simple sunlight,” said the young man. “While we give it credit for only depicting the merest surface it actually brings out the secret character with a truth no painter would ever venture ipon even could he detect it. There is at least no flattery in my humble line of art.” But it is a comfort to know that the sunlight reveals with the same fidelity and gives its radiance to unobtrusive purity of color and outline and sweetness of expression which otherwise might not have caught our attention.

Emilie Floge autochrome from 1908
Emilie Floge autochrome color photography from 1908

The votaries of the new art claim for it that it has vindicated the methods of the impressionists, the perpetrators of what is vulgarly but aptly styled the “wool work” style of painting. Maurer showed me with a lens how the seemingly blended colors in one of his plates were in fact made up of infinitesimal particles of pure color.

In the green grass were blue particles and yellow particles seen side by side. In the purple shadows, tiny spheres of blue and red are not really blended, though they appear so to the naked eye. The fact is held to justify the theories of the painters who hold that the effect truest to nature is produced by laying on the canvas the pure pigments first mixing them on the palette.

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Some early color photography efforts

The efforts to record by mechanical means the colors of nature are as old as the earliest forms of photography, and are much older than the first practical portraiture executed by Daguerre in 1839. In 1801 Ritter of Jena succeeded in securing a reproduction of the spectrum on paper coated with silver chloride, but he was not able to fix it. Efforts were also made by Seebeck of Jena in 1810, but with about the same results.

Nothing tangible was accomplished before Lippmann in 1891 was able to decompose light and reflect the colors corresponding to those in the natural objects he wished to reproduce. Since then scarcely a year has gone by without the announcement that color photography was about to be perfected.

The men who have worked at it have each succeeded in bringing the desired results a little nearer, but the great expensiveness of their methods and the imperfections of their achievements were equally discouraging.

In 1896, exhibitions of color plates drew great crowds to the photo exhibitions in Berlin and Dresden, and it was telegraphed all over the world that color photography was at last a reality. But these plates could not bear the light and had to be viewed in a dark room.

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Early color photo - Chinese Foreman
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Tea Factory in Chakva. Chinese Foreman Lau-Dzhen-Dzhau, ca. 1907-1915. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress,

The hints of Antoine Lumiere that he and his sons after 14 years of effort had at last succeeded were therefore received with skepticism by a public too well used to declarations that color photography was now possible. His exhibition, held in Paris last June, convinced not only the scientists, but the general public, that the longest step in the evolution of this art had been taken. The French inventor had discovered the way of fixing on one plate the impressions which before it was found necessary to gather on several plates, one for each color, effecting the combination in the printing.

The common “three color” process is based on the theory that all tints of nature are contained in the three primary colors, red, blue and yellow, of which the remaining colors of the spectrum are but combinations. In photographing a colored object for reproduction ray filters are used, permitting only one color to go through at the time. By taking one plate for each of the primary colors, or for each one of another set of colors that can be separated into the three primary colors, and then printing one on top of the other very good results may be obtained.

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But there has been a crudeness resulting from the superposition of colors instead of blending them as in nature. Then, too, it is difficult to get pure colors and perfect registration. Imperfect registration resulting from the impossibility of getting all plates taken in absolutely the same positions and printing one exactly on top of the other shows in the lines of pure color, red, blue or yellow often found along the edges of color prints, though artists claim that a slight variation from the mathematically true makes a print more interesting. It is the tiny fluttering from the straight and narrow path of the mechanical that gives the human touch.

Old color photography - Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. A Group of Children, 1909
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. A Group of Children, 1909. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

To gather the various impressions into one on a single plate has been the goal of the photographer. Ives took the three negatives in the usual way, but made positive transparencies, one of each color, placing one over the other in what he called a “kromskop.” July in 1894 he secured the three colors on one plate by means of a screen with very fine parallel lines, each recording one color, but the lines were too visible for beauty and his method was cumbersome. Lumiere and others tried to take the tree impressions on one plate by means of a repeating back.

Preparing the plate

The method which has finally been evolved by Lumiere is based on the same principle of the separation of the colors of the spectrum. This is secured by dusting the plate with very fine grains impregnated with dye. Instead of using the three primary colors, he uses light green, which, of course, are combinations of the three primary colors, distributed in equal proportions. Potato starch is found to be the best medium, and there are about 5,000,000 gains to the square inch. Each of the particles is acted upon only by the color to which it has been made sensitive and this makes the impressionistic effect of the tiny spheres of color that Maurer showed me through the lens. The smallness of the particles makes it possible to get all the colors on one surface, blended so that the separate ingredients are not visible to the naked eye.

At first it was found difficult to exclude the white light from filtering between the color grains, but a roller has now been perfected which dusts the grains thickly and evenly over the surface. They are then isolated with a waterproof varnish and coated with a panchromatic collodion emulsion. A very long exposure is necessary.

Author Leo Tolstoy, photographed in 1908 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii
Author Leo Tolstoy, photographed in 1908 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

In the case of the most successful plates taken in Maurer’s studio, an exposure of from four to five minutes had been found right. If I remember rightly, 13 hours was the time required in the earliest days of photography. After developing the plate without fixing is treated with an acidified permanganate of potash, which acts as a reducer. The colors sometimes run if the water used in developing penetrates through the varnish. This of course spoils the plate, which is a serious proposition so long as each plate must be brought from Paris.

The first exhibition of color photography in this country was held last November in the Photo-Secessionist rooms in New York of work done by Stieglitz and Eugene in Munich and by Steichen in Paris. Some beautiful reproductions have been seen, and it is claimed that for artistic merit the works of the Americans are ahead of those shown by Lumiere himself, who has paid more attention to scientific perfection of detail than to artistic composition.

It was an American, Robert Cornelius, who established the first photographic studio in the world. This was in Philadelphia in 1840, the very year after Daguerre’s discovery. Americans have always led the world in the field of pictorial photography, which has firmly established itself as an art. It is to be expected that although the two greatest discoveries in the realm of photography have been made in France its finest development in the future as in the past will be in the United States.

Will the new color photography ultimately supersede the various forms of color printing? The coarse wood cut which we can see by turning back to old magazines – not so very far back, either — has been replaced by the smooth, facile half tone, but the wood cuts of Timothy Cole, each one a dream of poetry visualized by the caressing touch of the master working in the materials he likes best, will never be superseded by any read made mechanical devices. So the raw, bungling specimens of color printing will no doubt have to go, but there will always be room for the best work in every branch. The more forms of art there are, the more room for individuality.

Will photography, when it has succeeded in transferring color to paper, supersede painting? The question is almost too nonsensical to be answered, and yet it has been propounded in all seriousness. Nothing can ever render superfluous the creative genius of the artist. The smaller cannot take the place of the greater. A great deal of what now masquerades as art will be shown up in its true or rather false colors when photography can record accurately not only the forms, but the colors of nature; but the sincere art will by the same means be aided in its striving after truth.

The thought of the benefits to be derived from color photography opens a field too wide to be explored at present. In the medical science alone the effects will be revolutionary.

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