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Color Photos From the World War I Era

Article #67 • Written by Alan Bellows

Color film was non-existent in 1909 Russia, yet in that year a photographer named Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii embarked on a photographic survey of his homeland and captured hundreds of photos in full, vivid color. His photographic plates were black and white, but he had developed an ingenious photographic technique which allowed him to use them to produce accurate color images.

He accomplished this with a clever camera of his own design, which took three black and white photos of a scene in rapid sequence, each though a differently colored filter. His photographic plates were long and slender, capturing all three images onto the same plate, resulting in three monochrome images which each had certain color information filtered out.

Sergei was then able to use a special image projector to project the three images onto a screen, each directly overlapping the others, and each through the appropriately colored filter. The recombined projection was a full-color representation of the original scene. Each three-image series captured by the camera stored all of the color information onto the black and white plates; all they lacked was actual tint, which the color filters on the projector restored.

Tsar Nicholas II fully supported Sergei's ambitious plan to document the Russian Empire, and provided a specially equipped railroad car which enclosed a darkroom for Sergei to develop his glass plates. He took hundreds of these color photos all over Russia from 1909 through 1915.

There was no means to develop color prints at that time, but modern technology has allowed these images to be recombined in their full original colors. The U.S. Library of Congress purchased all of Sergei's original glass negatives from his heirs in 1948, and in 2001 a beautiful exhibition was produced to showcase Sergei's photos, called The Empire that was Russia.

Around that same time, in 1907, the first practical color photographic plates were introduced to the world by the Lumière brothers in France. The plates were called "Autochrome Lumière," and they were made up of microscopic potato starch grains which were dyed orange, green, and blue; sandwiched between black-and-white film and a piece of glass; then coated in shellac. The tiny starch grains acted as color filters, making the film essentially a mosaic made up of many tiny pieces.

Once the black-and-white film base was developed, the dyed starch layer which had acted as many tiny color filters when the photo was taken now did the same task in reverse, giving the color back to the underlying image. The technology was a bit crude and grainy, but it was able to capture full color images which turned out looking rather impressionistic.

Autochrome film was expensive, slow and rare, so it didn't see a lot of use by the general public. But when World War One broke out in 1914, the French army began photographing soldiers and scenery, and some of their photos were taken with this new color film. As a result, a large proportion of color photos from that time are images of French soldiers in the field.

Because of the efforts of the French army photographers, there are beautiful color images of soldiers in the trenches, military equipment, ruined buildings, and villages, among other things. Autochrome plates age remarkably well due to their construction, so many of the originals are still in pristine condition today.

Autochrome remained as the primary color photograph medium until Kodachrome was introduced in 1935, and Agfacolor in the following year. Aside from Kodachrome, most modern color films are still based on the Agfacolor technology.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 04 December 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

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35 Comments
Josh Harding
Posted 05 December 2005 at 08:28 am

Aye laddy, ya bring a tear to my eye.


alexp
Posted 08 December 2005 at 03:43 pm

God damn!... Makes you finally realize the world didn't start with you.
All those crappy B&W images we have from back then, they really did sway our perception, didn't they?
Amazing, all I can say.


Gini
Posted 09 December 2005 at 09:51 pm

This is quite possibly the most fascinating thing I've read in a LONG time. Thanks for this; I've sent this link to lots of people. Amazing, that's all I can say...


JustAnotherName
Posted 11 December 2005 at 08:38 am

I liked this article too. I am an amatuer photographer at best, but I did get an honorable mention for a photo of my friends son pretty much ignoring me as he dug a stick into the ground. I called it "Lost in Thought." I think the right title sealed it for me.

I took a class in developing B&W. It was fun.

I also took B&W photos of my sisters' "Historic House" and her son standing at the front door. I then "colored" the photos just a bit with special markers. She was thrilled.


poiema
Posted 13 December 2005 at 05:41 pm

Glad you enjoyed my World War One Color Photos web site. Amazing photos, aren't they?

Next time you visit the site, could I ask a favor? Check out how my bandwidth has jumped some 1400% since June, and, if you don't mind, make a small donation. Trust me, it will be very much appreciated.

David


RandomAction
Posted 01 February 2006 at 11:32 pm

alexp said: "God damn!… Makes you finally realize the world didn't start with you.

All those crappy B&W images we have from back then, they really did sway our perception, didn't they?

Amazing, all I can say."

I agree, the B&W actually does seem to form a barrier between then and now, and these color examples really cross into the 'real' of today.

Nice article.


drymedia
Posted 11 April 2006 at 12:41 am

Truly Amazing. View all those photographs is like stepping into a time machine.


kwiksand
Posted 16 April 2006 at 05:35 am

I've seen these photo's a few times previously, and only just noticed this article as I've been reading backwards through DamnInteresting, so I thought I'd drop a post anyway. It's great to see a different perspective of old-time photos, especially given my child like "black and white" view of age old photos.

Love the site, fatastic read!


Holy Schmidt!
Posted 27 July 2006 at 02:22 pm

I am blown away by this one. The photos are fascinating. It put a whole different spin on the past. Makes it "Real".


unique
Posted 30 July 2006 at 07:11 pm

It is the technique astromomers use for a long time.


Marisa Brook
Posted 30 July 2006 at 08:31 pm

Nifty!


Kuz_Sam
Posted 30 July 2006 at 10:36 pm

Thumbs up to that russian dude... really cool how he could think of doing that back then.

love this site...

:D


Mark
Posted 31 July 2006 at 02:42 am

It's completely amazing how the world was actually in colour before the fifties, isn't it?

I saw some WW1 footage that had been colourised in modern times, and played at the right speed (old films always look too fast). It was amazing how "real" it all looked. I suddenly saw the people in the films as people I would be able to relate to and understand, it was actually quite moving.


1c3d0g
Posted 31 July 2006 at 05:35 am

This is truly incredible.


adastra
Posted 31 July 2006 at 08:19 am

Wow! Really eye-opening.


schuylercat
Posted 31 July 2006 at 08:31 am

I made a living for a while as a photographer, shooting open-wheeled race cars. Didn’t last long – the money sucked and evidently I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.

I shot a gazillion rolls of E6 – based on the Agfa process, and still have my Nikon Coolscan film scanner and a gazillion dollars worth of Canon bodies, lenses, accessories and stuff (that’s worth 1/10th what it was worth two years ago). I have boxes of rolled-up raw, processed chrome still rolled up, un-mounted.

I’m looking at these shots of Russia, taken with the inventive three-plate process…and I’m stunned. The resolution is not too surprising, given the shots were all taken with a full-frame view camera. The color, though, is just damned stunning, and the depth of the shots is remarkable (maybe that’s just what you get when you layer 3 plates, one atop the other). That shot of the Nilova Monastery is just freaking brilliant.

The fact these are almost a hundred years old is what gets me – It seems almost anyone with a good eye, a 8 meg Nikon or Canon, a decent lens, and a copy of Photoshop could recreate the look and feel of these things, but Prokudin-Gorskii had his photography freak on big way back.

Damned interesting.


another viewpoint
Posted 31 July 2006 at 10:17 am

...old black and whites (or brown and white sepias) may lack brilliance and luster, but it does give photos that "aged" appearance which is sometimes needed...a piece of history frozen in time for perpetuity. Although, there's nothing about war time photography that is colorful (imho). The dismal appearance presented in most of the photography of the time probably portrayed real life conditions.

If you're doing a study on lighting contrast, once again, color just won't do it justice like like black and white will. Still, to produce such photographs at the turn of the century, even on a limited basis and with the crude mechanix and chemistry available at the time, the boys did damn good!

The description of their photographic technique kind of reminded me of the stereographic process that produced 3d black and white scenes. That ever so slight shift of perspective was all that was needed to give a two, 2-dimensional photos that 3rd dimension. Spin the clock ahead many a decade and you might say that lasers and holographic technology added the 4th dimension...time and space.

Way to go Allan...and to repeat...DAMN INTERESTING! Thank you.


kareno
Posted 31 July 2006 at 10:45 pm

Wow, after looking at those photos, you really appreciate how color makes images come alive. Black and white images often seem like they are from another space and time completely separate from here.

Also, Sergei's plates seem very similar to color channels. Heh he was an original Photoshop-per.


fvngvs
Posted 01 August 2006 at 05:46 am

Russia's gorgeous! Prokudin-Gorskii did it all the hard way too. A bit of a purist methinks.

It looks like the Russian Revolution had a bit to answer for ...

Shame on you schuylercat for mentioning *THAT* word regarding photography: photoshop? shudder.


orielbean
Posted 01 August 2006 at 08:33 am

For film buffs, Agfa makes an absolutely stunning positive b&w filmstock called Scala film. The pictures are unreal, and the stock isn't all that expensive for 35mm.


Spookie1
Posted 01 August 2006 at 03:56 pm

Some or Russia is very senic, and then there is the outskirts, filthy dilapidated, half standing buildings, that people are forced to live in, some with entire outside walls missing, and tarps in lieu of.

Still, the photography techniques, and the photos, are fantastic!


Chris
Posted 01 August 2006 at 05:04 pm

It amazing how we view the past images without color, unless it is through a painting or a modern rendition. To actually SEE an acurate image, virtually pre color film is most impressive! Not to sound corny.........but the man had a great vision!


Neal Saferstein
Posted 01 August 2006 at 07:20 pm

Therse are amazing!!!!

Neal Saferstein


mensadave
Posted 02 August 2006 at 05:12 am

Kind of surprising how no one ever applied this technique to motion pictures at that time. But then, we might have missed out on all those great B&W film noirs . . .


noway
Posted 02 August 2006 at 11:09 am

JustAnotherName said: "I liked this article too. I am an amatuer photographer at best, but I did get an honorable mention for a photo of my friends son pretty much ignoring me as he dug a stick into the ground. I called it "Lost in Thought." I think the right title sealed it for me.


I took a class in developing B&W. It was fun.

I also took B&W photos of my sisters' "Historic House" and her son standing at the front door. I then "colored" the photos just a bit with special markers. She was thrilled."

still looking for the point to this...


misplacedmodifier
Posted 07 August 2006 at 10:06 pm

Wonderful article. Gorgeous images, too. I love when this site unearths a bit of information that should be common knowledge, but isn't. I consider that a public service!


wxrodrig
Posted 14 August 2006 at 01:41 pm

Yes, Now This Is Damn Interesting. Not like that Zephyr car article !


benzeneforeveryone
Posted 19 August 2006 at 11:43 pm

schuylercat said: "I made a living for a while as a photographer, shooting open-wheeled race cars. Didn’t last long – the money sucked and evidently I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.


I shot a gazillion rolls of E6 – based on the Agfa process, and still have my Nikon Coolscan film scanner and a gazillion dollars worth of Canon bodies, lenses, accessories and stuff (that’s worth 1/10th what it was worth two years ago). I have boxes of rolled-up raw, processed chrome still rolled up, un-mounted.

I’m looking at these shots of Russia, taken with the inventive three-plate process…and I’m stunned. The resolution is not too surprising, given the shots were all taken with a full-frame view camera. The color, though, is just damned stunning, and the depth of the shots is remarkable (maybe that’s just what you get when you layer 3 plates, one atop the other). That shot of the Nilova Monastery is just freaking brilliant.

The fact these are almost a hundred years old is what gets me – It seems almost anyone with a good eye, a 8 meg Nikon or Canon, a decent lens, and a copy of Photoshop could recreate the look and feel of these things, but Prokudin-Gorskii had his photography freak on big way back.

Damned interesting."

While looking at Gorskii's photos, it seemed that I was peering out of my Orient Express cabin window; the color of the images is perfect--they do not appear hyper-real, nor hypo-real. While gazing at them/into them, it became possible that I might just step through my monitor directly into the past, gliding back one hundred years as quickly as an errant screen flicker.

Question to schuylercat: I am interested to know what type of Canon photographic equipment you have. It seems from your posting that you are no longer are in any great hurry to continue using your apparent surplus of lenses, bodies, etc. I have a Canon EOS3, and would be interested in acquiring certain lenses/filters for it at less than the cost of new. I would be glad to take you up on your offer of ten percent of what they were originally worth that you stated. If you are up for an exchange of information, please reply to this comment, and I will then dole out my e-mail address. Thank you.


Kafka
Posted 25 August 2006 at 07:43 pm

The Colour is spot on, the photos look almost as good as modern photos. I can't see why this wasn't adapted for use in other areas. Maybe because it was too expensive? You did have to take 3 photos.

It is unfortunate that not more pictures were taken.


bonjour641
Posted 18 June 2007 at 07:55 pm

Does anyone else think the photo of the man in the blue robe is adorable? My sister's reaction was "Oh, how cute!" I loved it.


Tink
Posted 19 June 2007 at 02:42 am

bonjour641 said: "Does anyone else think the photo of the man in the blue robe is adorable? My sister's reaction was "Oh, how cute!" I loved it."

LOL, yeah, he reminds me of Mr. French,(Sabastion Cabot?)


tarteauxpommes
Posted 21 June 2007 at 02:11 pm

I want that picture in my house! :-)


BlackFoxOne
Posted 02 September 2008 at 06:18 pm

OMG That must have been a wonderful time to be aroudn in. I would have loved to have grown up in that era.

Josh
http://www.privacy.cz.tc


ManMan
Posted 18 September 2008 at 02:09 pm

Color photos of Wells, Venice and Plitvice Lakes in Croatia taken more then 100 years ago and now.
http://technogreatideas.blogspot.com/2008/09/then-and-now-color-photos-taken-more.html


willj2047
Posted 13 September 2010 at 05:19 pm

I really enjoyed the car picture. I'm no expert on WWII photography but I enjoy history and it's always nice to see pictures that go along with the story. I'm fascinated by the way they develop the photos, there is so much science that goes into it. It always amazes me.


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