Colour Photography

Innovations in Photography: The Transformation of a Monochrome Medium by Colour Photography

by Carl Blank

Louis Ducos du Hauron, Agen in Acquitaine (1877)

History tells us that man has long been fascinated by colour and this photograph finally gave him the ability to reproduce the colour he saw around him in printed reality. Prior to this photograph, the race for colour prints had been on but with little success, hand colouring albumen prints with paint was the only real way to bring colour to photographs. The period 1861 to 1880 is particularly significant as in 1861 the Scottish physicist James Clark Maxwell projected three colour slides simultaneously to produce the first colour image and in 1877 Ducos du Hauron had finally produced the first colour print, “Agen in Aquitaine”. It remains one if not the earliest surviving colour photograph. Since this print colour photography has played a major role in defining the way we see the world around us.

In 1666, some two hundred years before Ducos du Hauron’s picture, Isaac Newton (1642–1727) discovered that white light was made up of seven different colours, which he called the spectrum. Although many subsequently alluded to the fact that light was transmitted in waveform it was not until the very early 1800’s Thomas Young (1773-1829) established the fact that light moved in waves and different coloured light had different wavelengths.

From the advent of photography people worked to discover how to produce colour photographs. In 1840 Sir John Herschel (1791-1871) registered colours on paper coated with sensitive silver chloride, but was unable to fix them. In 1842 he came up with the cyanotype process based on Prussian blue a pigment used by painters. This could be toned to produce violet, green or red but could only be used for making contact prints.

During the photographic period before 1877 the only way to produce a full colour photo was to hand colour black & white albumen prints. This was most popular in Japan and notable amongst others was Felice Beato. In the mid 1800s he ran a studio in Japan employing Japanese watercolour artists to produce many hand coloured prints. His series of 100 prints called “Native Types” being the well known.

The first major break through in colour photography as opposed applied colour took place in 1861. In May of that year James Clark Maxwell lectured at the Royal Institution in London and demonstrated a full colour image of a tartan ribbon projected onto a screen. He had three black & white glass negatives of a colour ribbon taken by the photographer Thomas Sutton. Each captured through separate red, green and blue filters. From these negatives black & white positives were made. These were then simultaneously projected onto a screen through their respective red, green and blue filters creating a composite colour image of the Tartan Ribbon. Interestingly this demonstration should not have worked at all as the emulsions that Maxwell used were not sensitive to red light. But, unbeknown to Maxwell the red in the ribbon reflected ultraviolet light the emulsion could record and so the image was a success. Maxwell had produced a projected colour image but a practical method of producing a colour print was still to be discovered.

In 1869 Louis Ducos du Huron published “Les Couleurs en Photographie”, in which he describes in theory several ways to produce colour photographs. At this time he could not test his theory, as the collodion plates he used were sensitive to blue light but almost insensitive to red and green. In 1873 Herman Vogel discovered that adding coloured dye to the plates would increase their sensitivity to colours other than blue.  For example the yellow/red dye corallin would absorb yellow and green and made the plates sensitive to these colours. This was the breakthrough that Ducos du Huron needed.

In 1877 Ducos du Huron photographed Agen in Aquitaine and produced the print. The following year he published his instruction manual, “Traite Pratique de Photographie des Couleurs” in which he details the methods used to take the picture of Agen. As with James Clerk Maxwell he took three black and white negatives taken through red, green and blue filters. From these he was able to produce the print.

This involved preparing three coated papers with gelatine and pigment of carmine (magenta), Prussian Blue (cyan) and orpiment (yellow). These were then made light sensitive by treating them with an alcoholic solution of ammonia bichromate. They were then contact printed against the respective black and white negative plates – one each for red, green and blue. When the gelatine was exposed to light it hardened producing a positive image. The resulting image on the paper could then be “developed” by washing away the unhardened gelatine with warm water.

He then used a temporary glass plate to transfer the image from the coated paper to the final print. For each colour he pressed a glass plate against the coated paper, which stuck the gelatine to the glass. The paper could then be peeled off leaving a negative image on the glass plate. The glass plate was then pressed onto the final print paper, transferring the positive image to the paper. This process was repeated for each of the three colours carefully aligning the colour layers to produce the final colour image. The cyan, magenta and yellow layers can be seen to the edges of the photograph of Agen in Aquitaine.

So, after many years of trying the colour print had finally arrived and although the process of colour photography did not really take off commercially until the Autochrome was invented in the early 1900’s, this is the print that started it all. At last people could see people, places and objects as the really were and not just in monochrome or as a painted picture.

It is this ability to show the world as it is, in full colour that makes this image and colour photography so important. In the book, “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger the author discusses the fact that the photograph has changed the way that people saw paintings.

“The uniqueness of every painting was once part of the uniqueness of the place where it resided. Sometimes the painting was transportable. But it could never be seen in two places at the same time. When the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image”. (Berger, 1972 p.12)

But it is not only the painting that was affected by the colour photograph. Everything that could be photographed is now available to be viewed. Berger argues that the photo has destroyed the uniquness of the painting, which it undoubtably has. But, it has also given the painting and everything that can be seen an audience of every person where ever they may be. It has given man the ability to educate and inform. It has given the individual powers hitherto unknown. For many reasons we cannot own the great works of art as Berger discusses, but we can have photographs of them in our houses, on our clothes, even on our cars.

“Colour photography is to the spectator-buyer what oil paint was to the spectator-owner”. (Berger, 1972 p.134)

The colour photograph has become such a flexible medium: it can be art, documentation, a keepsake, a window on the world, a snapshot, a statement, a scientific tool, a book……  the list seems endless. Although Louis Ducos du Hauron remains relativly unknown and received little recognition in his lifetime, he and his innovative picture were the start of something big, something that I’m sure he could never have envisaged. Something that has changed the way we view the world.


Berger, J. 1972. Ways of Seeing, Penguin.

Coe, B. 1978. Colour photography : the first hundred years, 1840-1940, London, Ash & Grant.

Newhall, B. 1954. An 1877 Color Photograph. Image, 3, 33-34.

Roberts, P. 2007. A century of colour photography : from the autocrome to the digital age, London, Andre Deutsch.

Thequintessential. 2009. Iconic Photos. Ribbon, by Maxwell [Online]. Available: [Accessed 23-11-09 2009].

Unknown. 2009. Newton & the Colour of Light [Online]. The College of Optometrists. Available: [Accessed 23/11/09 2009].

Wikipedia. 2009. Felic Beato [Online]. Wikipedia. Available: [Accessed 23-11-09 2009].

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