Behold the Very First Color Photograph (1861): Taken by Scottish Physicist (and Poet!) James Clerk Maxwell


Since its ancient ori­gins as the cam­era obscu­ra, the pho­to­graph­ic cam­era has always mim­ic­ked the human eye, allow­ing light to enter an aper­ture, then pro­ject­ing an image upside down. Renais­sance artists relied on the cam­era obscu­ra to sharp­en their own visu­al per­spec­tives. But it wasn’t until photography—the abil­i­ty to repro­duce the obscu­ra’s images—that the rudi­men­ta­ry arti­fi­cial eye began evolv­ing the same com­plex struc­tures we rely on for our own visu­al acu­ity: lens­es for sharp­ness, vari­able aper­tures, shut­ter speeds, focus con­trols…. Only when it began to seem that pho­tog­ra­phy might vie with the oth­er fine arts did the devel­op­ment of cam­era tech­nol­o­gy take off. And it moved quick­ly.

Between the time of the first pho­to­graph in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and 1861, pho­tog­ra­phy had advanced suf­fi­cient­ly that physi­cist James Clerk Maxwell—known for his “Maxwell’s Demon” thought experiment—produced the first col­or pho­to­graph that did not imme­di­ate­ly fade or require hand paint­ing (above). The Scot­tish sci­en­tist chose to take a pic­ture of a tar­tan rib­bon, “cre­at­ed,” writes Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, “by pho­tograph­ing it three times through red, blue, and yel­low fil­ters, then recom­bin­ing the images into one col­or com­pos­ite.” Maxwell’s three-col­or method was intend­ed to mim­ic the way the eye process­es col­or, based on the­o­ries he had elab­o­rat­ed in an 1855 paper.


Maxwell’s many oth­er accom­plish­ments tend to over­shad­ow his col­or pho­tog­ra­phy (and his poet­ry!). Nonethe­less, the poly­math thinker ush­ered in a rev­o­lu­tion in pho­to­graph­ic repro­duc­tion, almost as an aside. “It’s easy to for­get, “ writes BBC pic­ture edi­tor, Phil Coomes, “that not long ago news agen­cies were trans­mit­ting their wire pho­tographs as colour sep­a­ra­tions, usu­al­ly cyan, magen­ta and yellow—a process that relied on Clerk Maxwell’s dis­cov­ery. Indeed even the lat­est dig­i­tal cam­era relies on the sep­a­ra­tion method to cap­ture light.” And yet, com­pared to the usu­al speed of pho­to­graph­ic advance­ment, the process took some time to ful­ly refine.

Maxwell cre­at­ed the image with the help of pho­tog­ra­ph­er Thomas Sut­ton, inven­tor of the sin­gle lens reflex cam­era, but his inter­est lay prin­ci­pal­ly in its demon­stra­tion of his col­or the­o­ry, not its appli­ca­tion to pho­tog­ra­phy in gen­er­al. Six­teen years lat­er, the repro­duc­tion of col­or had not advanced sig­nif­i­cant­ly, though a sub­trac­tive method allowed more sub­tle­ty of light and shade, as you can see in the 1877 exam­ple above by Louis Ducos du Hau­ron. Even so, these nine­teenth images still can­not com­pete for vibran­cy and life­like­ness with hand-col­ored pho­tos from the peri­od. Despite appear­ing arti­fi­cial, hand-tint­ed images like these of 1860s Samu­rai Japan brought a star­tling imme­di­a­cy to their sub­jects in a way that ear­ly col­or pho­tog­ra­phy did not.

Sarah Acland

It wasn’t until the ear­ly 20th century—with the devel­op­ment of col­or process­es by Gabriel Lipp­man and the Sanger Shep­herd company—that col­or came into its own. Leo Tol­stoy appeared ear­ly in the cen­tu­ry in bril­liant full col­or pho­tos. Paris came alive in col­or images dur­ing WWI. And Sarah Angeli­na Acland, a pio­neer­ing Eng­lish pho­tog­ra­ph­er, took the image above in 1900 above using the Sanger Shep­herd method. That process—patented, mar­ket­ed, and sold—thoroughly improved upon Maxwell’s results, but its basic oper­a­tion was near­ly the same: three images, red, green, and blue, com­bined into one.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

The First Col­or Por­trait of Leo Tol­stoy, and Oth­er Amaz­ing Col­or Pho­tos of Czarist Rus­sia (1908)

Venice in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images 125 Years Ago: The Rial­to Bridge, St. Mark’s Basil­i­ca, Doge’s Palace & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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