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A Brief History of Color Photography

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Photo by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration (1942).  Early Kodachrome.

Photo by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration (1942).

Over at Luminous Lint, Alan Griffiths and Robert Hirsch are collaborating to enhance Hirsch’s textbooks on the history of photography with the sort of rich extra content that wouldn’t fit into the printed form.  Currently available are A Concise History of Color Photography, the second chapter of Hirsch’s book Exploring Color Photography (5th edition, Focal Press, 2010), and Pictures on Glass: The Wet-Plate Process, the fourth chapter of Hirsch’s Seizing the Light: A Social History of Photography (2nd edition, McGraw-Hill, 2009).

The former moves quickly through a lot of fascinating territory in photographic history and science, and includes a section on Autochrome, the contribution of the Lumière brothers, “the inventors of the first practical motion picture projector, [who] patented a major breakthrough in the making of color photographs in 1904… the first commercially viable and extensively used color photographic process”.

Louis Lumiere in 1907.  Autochrome print.

Louis Lumière in 1907. Autochrome print.

Almost certainly a very deliberately staged publicity photo to show off the most eye-catching colors of the Autochrome process.  I’ll buy that Lumière had a bold red laboratory decorating scheme (oddly close to the red accent color later favored by Walter Gropius), and that he hung around with a hand-rolled cigarette while playing with his microscope and chemicals, because, what the heck, the French knew how to have a good Belle Époque chemistry party, but that’s a really convenient array of jewel-toned test-tubes there.

(via Kottke)


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