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Invented by the Lumière brothers, the autochrome was the first practical process for colour photography; it has been described as 'perhaps the most beautiful of all the photographic processes'.

Iris and Janet, c.1914, Etheldreda Janet Laing © Science Museum Group collection
Iris and Janet, c.1914, Etheldreda Janet Laing © Science Museum Group collection

Today, we take colour photography for granted. Yet for many years, colour photographs remained an elusive dream. 100 years ago, the dream became a reality when the first fully practical method of colour photography appeared—the autochrome process.
 
The Dawn of Colour celebrated the centenary of the autochrome and the birth of colour photography. It revealed the Edwardian world as never seen before: in full, vibrant colour.

Portrait of Christina wearing a red cloak, 1913, Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman © Royal Photographic Society Collection
Portrait of Christina wearing a red cloak, 1913, Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman

On our blog

How the girl in red from a 1913 photo became a social media starlet—read more about Mervyn O'Gorman's portraits of Christina, and see more images

A short history of colour photography

Autochromes: The dawn of colour photography

The Lumière brothers: Pioneers of cinema and colour photography

Couple with a motor car, c.1910 © Science Museum Group collection
Couple with a motor car, c.1910, anonymous

Overview

The Quest for Colour

In 1839, when photographs were seen for the first time, they were greeted with a sense of wonder. However, people's amazement soon turned to disappointment. How could a process that captured nature in such exquisite detail fail so to record its colours? The search for a practical process of colour photography soon became photography's 'Holy Grail'.

Chasing Rainbows

The nature of light had to be understood before colours could be reproduced photographically. The scientific investigation of light and colour began in the 17th century when Sir Isaac Newton used a prism to split sunlight to show it was made up of the colours of the spectrum. In 1861, James Clerk Maxwell conducted an experiment to show that all colours can be made by mixing different amounts of red, green and blue light—thus creating what is regarded as the first colour 'photograph'.

Hand-Colouring

While experimenters searched for a method of colour photography, photographers, eager to give customers what they wanted, took the matter into their own hands—literally—and began to add colour to their monochrome images. Sometimes the results were very crude but, with skilled artists, beautiful effects were possible. Even at its very best, however, hand-colouring remained an unsatisfactory solution.

Enter the Experimenters

While the fundamental principles were understood by the 1860s, colour photography remained elusive. Several pioneers succeeded in making colour photographs but their processes were complicated and impractical. Crucially, photographic plates of the time were sensitive only to certain colours. Only at the end of the century, when ‘panchromatic’ plates, sensitive to all colours were introduced, was the way clear for the invention of the first practicable method of colour photography: the autochrome process.

The Lumière Brothers

The autochrome process was invented by two Frenchmen, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Best known as film pioneers with their invention of the cinématographe in 1895, they had also been experimenting with colour photography for several years. In 1904, they announced their discovery and three years later began the commercial production of autochrome plates at their factory in Lyon.

Flower Study, 1908, Baron Adolph de Meyer © Royal Photographic Society Collection
Flower Study, 1908, Baron Adolph de Meyer