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Color Photography

by John H. Lienhard

You might think I’m being cute when I say that color is not black and white. But, in the case of color photography, history is indeed colored with so many shades of gray.

Color is such an overwhelming sensual experience. I sit at my desk in the muted natural light of morning, my eye tracing the subtle shadings of color: book covers with dozens of browns, splashes of off-reds and greens — wooden cases stained rust, off-white walls, colors that clash, mesh, and goad thought. Naturally, once people could photograph images in black and white, inventors would almost immediately set off to photograph in color as well.

The French Academy of Sciences announced Daguerre’s new photographic process to the world in 1839. Daguerre had begun work on his Daguerreotypes right on the heels of Niépce. Now his process marched into the marketplace with the full imprimatur of modern science. And, of course, the first thing people said was, "That’s nice. Now when will we have color?"

A cottage industry of hand-painted Daguerreotypes sprang up immediately. But people reacted much the way I did when I saw a colorized version of the black and white movie Casablanca on TV. It broke my heart to see the original delicacies of shading replaced with such kitsch.

People quickly saw that you can't fake real color. Beside, the demand for color outran even our rapidly improving knowledge of chemistry. When color film finally reached the market in the 1930's, we'd been trying to create it for a century.

One myth of early color photography holds that the Rev. Levi Hill, of Westkill, New York, invented it as early as 1850. That seems too preposterous to take seriously. But art historian Joseph Boudreau looks more closely at Hill. When Hill announced his process, he was visited by a group from the New York Daguerrean Association. They told him to keep quiet or they'd wreck his lab. Daguerreotypes were already becoming obsolete and they feared for their livelihood.

Hill bought a revolver and a mean guard dog. And he forged ahead. People like Samuel F. B. Morse inspected his work and declared it sound. In 1856, Hill published a rambling account of what he now called the Hillotype process. But he also used the book to attack the Daguerrean Association. They, in turn, got a court order requiring all copies of the book to be destroyed.

Hill nevertheless gave up the ministry to go full-time into photography. He suffered chronic bronchitis and believed that inhaling fumes of photographic chemicals helped him. The fumes soon killed him, and he passed into photographic mythology.

Boudreau found a surviving copy of Hill's book and set about to replicate the process. It was long and difficult, but it actually worked. He managed to produce some dingy, but distinct, color Daguerreotypes. Hill had actually succeeded — at least partially, and 80 years too soon.

One of the Rev. Levi Hill’s Hillotype photos

The year before Hill’s book, the great Victorian physicist, James Clark Maxwell had suggested the following technique to get color photographs: Take simultaneous photos recording the colors yellow, blue, and red. Then one might mix the three together to get all the intermediate hues.

Many people worked on that idea. The 1900 issue of the magazine, The World's Work, includes an article, "A notable Advance in Color Photography." We're told that “it’s now possible [to take a snapshot in China with an] ordinary camera fitted with a newly perfected screen, to send the negative to New York, and there have the picture reproduced in all its original colors ... “

The negative in this Brasseur/Sampolo process has tiny horizontal strips. Each strip reproduces one primary color: red, yellow, and blue. When the strips are superposed they give the image. This was the first color photography fast enough to record moving subjects. Still, color photography wouldn't be on the market until 1907. It wouldn't be commonplace until the 1930s. This was just one more way-station in that evolution.

That’s when I first saw early color photos and movies. I was not crazy about their gaudy distortion of reality's much gentler colors. Boudreau's pictures, made with Hill's process, at least had some restraint. Of course his process was too complex to be practical. But he really had done it — and far ahead of its time.


These issues are generally treated in any history of photography.  See, e.g. the Wikipedia article,

For more on Hill, see: J. Boudreau, Color Daguerreotypes: Hillotypes Recreated. Pioneers of Photography: Their Achievements in Science and Technology. (Springfield, VA: The Society of Imaging Science and Technology, 1997, distributed by the Northeastern University Press).

See The World's Work, November and December, 1900 for the article on color photography that I discuss.