Three Early Color Photographs (1861,1908,1909)
Liberal Arts Blog — Friday is the Joy of Art, Architecture, Film, Design, and All Things Visual Day
Last time three historic black and white photographs. This week three early color photographs with some incredible stories behind them. One involves one of the greatest physicists of all time. The second involves a project of the Russian Tsar Nicholas. The third is by a young photographer whom Bernard Shaw called the “greatest photographer in the world” in 1907.
Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.
THOMAS SUTTON (1861) — made for a lecture by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell
1. Maxwell had a theory related to optics and the human eye which he published in 1855. Six years later he hired Sutton to put it into practice.
2. “if three colorless photographs of the same scene were taken through red, green and blue filters, and transparencies (“slides”) made from them were projected through the same filters and superimposed on a screen, the result would be an image reproducing not only red, green and blue, but all of the colors in the original scene.” (Wikipedia)
3, Maxwell’s theory was based on the work of Thomas Young and Hermann von Helmholtz which argued that human vision was a function of three sets of color cones.
NB: Sutton was a math-prize-winning student at Caius College, Cambridge before opening a photographic studio in 1847 “under the patronage of Prince Albert.” He would develop both the first panoramic and single lens reflex cameras.
SERGEI PROKUDIN-GORSKY (1908) “Russian Peasants”
1. Something of a polymath, Prokudin-Gorsky studied chemistry under Mendeleev, but also music and painting.
2. The photograph that made him famous was one of Leo Tolstoy. (Click on second link below to find it.)
3. This fame got him a commission from Tsar Nicholas to chronicle the Russian Empire. He spent six years (1909–1915) traveling across the Empire in a special train equipped with a dark room and took over 10,000 photographs of which one is above. Don’t miss the gallery of others at the end of the second link.
NB: Prokudin-Gorsky fled Russia in 1918 and eventually settled in Paris. The US Library of Congress purchased his collection of photographs from his heirs in 1948.
ALVIN LANGDON COBURN (1909) — “Mark Twain”
1, Uses the additive “autochrome” technique developed by the Lumiere Brothers which was the dominant method in the early 20th century used until the “subtractive” technique of the 1930s.
2. “The medium consists of a glass plate coated on one side with a random mosaic of microscopic grains of potato starch dyed red-orange, green, and blue-violet (an unusual but functional variant of the standard red, green, and blue additive colors); the grains of starch act as color filters. Lampblack fills the spaces between grains, and a black-and-white panchromatric silver halide emulsion is coated on top of the filter layer.”
3. Coburn’s 1913 book, “Men of Mark,” included photographs of Henri Matisse, George Bernard Shaw (whom he would later photograph nude posing as “The Thinker’), HG Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, Auguste Rodin, and WB Yeats, as well as Mark Twain (above).
NB: In Coburn’s own words: “To make satisfactory photographs of persons it is necessary for me to like them, to admire them, or at least to be interested in them. It is rather curious and difficult to exactly explain, but if I dislike my subject it is sure to come out in the resulting portrait.”