Scott's Photographica Collection

Article on Early Color Photographic Expeditions and Processes


Farther down the page you will find an article that I wrote for the Reunion Issue of the Cascade Panorama.  The Cascade Panorama was the informative and popular journal of the Cascade Photographic Historical Society.  Publication of the journal ceased with the November-December, 2003 issue.  The former editor, Ralph London, hit upon the idea of publishing just one more edition—a reunion of sorts, featuring fresh, new articles to be written by the original journal's regular contributors.  A few new faces, of which I am one, were also invited to contribute articles.  Past editions were in print form; this edition, published October, 2010, is only available on-line.  The reunion issue has received glowing praise from its readers.  It was edited by Ralph London, the desktop publisher was Charlie Kamerman, and Mike Otto of Pacific Rim Camera volunteered to host the issue on his Web server.  I enjoyed reading every article.  The reunion issue URL is:

Contents of the Cascade Panorama Reunion Issue:


Early Color Photographic Expeditions and Processes

© 2010 Scott Bilotta

I’m pretty sure it was a Saturday in 1958. My two brothers and I sat in the back seat of the family Ford, mom navigated and dad piloted us to a neighboring town. We were on our way to an open-house but the home on display would prove to be no more spacious than the car that carried us there. This was the era of the Red Scare and we were off to examine the latest features in backyard fallout shelters.

The Russians were called Reds but my distinct impression of Russia was that it was a country devoid of color. It was a grainy, monochromatic land. This I had learned from photographs in Life magazine. On the other hand the picture postcards my grandfather mailed from Florida shrieked of color. Florida was colorful, Russia was not.

Naturally as I left childhood behind, my understanding of the world-at-large matured. Color photography in printed media became more commonplace and I could see that Russia wasn’t really a gray place after all.

Prokudin-Gorskii’s Color Separations
I believe it was early in 2005 when I first viewed the brilliant, full-color photographs of Russia taken nearly a century before by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

With funding provided by Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorskii made elaborate photographic expeditions throughout Russia. At intervals between 1909 and 1915, using an early glass-plate three-color camera, he took thousands of color separation photographs of the Russian people and their land. Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs are the earliest known large body of color images of the vast Russian Empire. In 1948 the U.S. Library of Congress purchased the entire collection of Prokudin-Gorskii’s negatives from his heirs.

Although he was not the first individual to successfully photograph the natural world in color, Prokudin-Gorskii worked at the leading edge of technology. He must have been quite confident in his abilities because large sums of the Tsar’s money were invested in the expeditions. The color process Prokudin-Gorskii chose to use is known as color separation photography. This method involves making three separate black and white records of a scene. His approach was to take the three exposures on a single glass plate, with each exposure occupying one-third of the plate. Each third was exposed through a filter in one of the three additive primary colors: red, green and blue. His camera featured a repeating back that allowed the three sections of a plate to be exposed sequentially and in rapid succession. Although the process is simple to describe there were significant technical challenges associated with each set of exposures.

Professor Dr. Miethe's Three-Color Camera

Professor Dr. Miethe's Dreifarben-Camera, ca. 1903, is a three-color repeating back camera designed by Dr. Adolf Miethe and built by Wilhelm Bermpohl. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorksii's camera was either this model or similar and based upon this design.  Camera in author's collection; photographs by the author.

A clear explanation of Prokudin-Gorskii’s process and a selection of photographs from the U.S. Library of Congress collection are available on the Web at: The Empire That Was Russia. The reconstructed color images in the Library of Congress exhibit were digitally assembled from the original separation negatives.

In general, the steps involved in digital assembly are:

It was possible in the early 1900s to make color prints from separation negatives but there is no evidence that Prokudin-Gorskii did so. Color prints would have needed to be made by an assembly process, a task so lengthy and difficult that a yield of one print per day by a skilled worker was considered excellent productivity. However, for reference purposes Prokudin-Gorskii made a monochrome print of each photograph.

Color Photograph of chapel by Prokudin-Gorskii, 1909

Chapel on the site where the city of Belozersk was founded in ancient times.  Photograph by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, 1909.  Color image created with digital color rendering at the direction of the U.S. Library of Congress.  Photomontage by the author.

To exhibit the photographs in color Prokudin-Gorskii first made diapositives (transparencies) from the color separation negatives. He then projected the transparencies with a three-lens magic lantern. The three diapositives were each projected by light of the same color as the filter through which they were exposed. The transparency made from the negative shot through the red filter was projected with red light. In the same manner the green and blue images were projected. When the projector was aligned to precisely superimpose the three black and white images the subject magically appeared in vivid, natural color. On various occasions Prokudin-Gorskii entertained and captivated the royal court by projecting color photographs that were taken during his expeditions throughout Russia.

Albert Kahn’s Autochromes
Another large-scale photographic expedition also began in 1909. This huge and expensive undertaking, named the Archive of the Planet, was the brainchild of and fully funded by Albert Kahn, a wealthy French banker and philanthropist. The project sent photographers to over fifty countries on a mission to make a color photographic record of the every-day life and important events of the world’s peoples. Kahn believed that by exposing people to each other via visual images the prospects for world peace would be enhanced. Like Prokudin-Gorskii, Kahn chose to use a nascent color process and forgo the long-established reliability of monochrome photography. Amazingly, this enormous project ran for twenty-two years. It ended in 1931 and produced over 72,000 Autochrome images and over one hundred hours of monochrome cine films. For additional information and to view a selection of Archive of the Planet Autochromes see the BBC Books Web site and the site of the Albert Kahn museum.

Introduced to the public on June 10, 1907, the Autochrome by 1909 had been on the market for less than two years. The Autochrome is a color screen plate type of photographic medium. It was not the world’s first color screen plate, it was preceded by two others, but the Autochrome’s color fidelity and image quality were a vast improvement over its predecessors. The Autochrome was the first commercially successful, accessible form of color photography, so simple to use that it was immediately adopted and enthusiastically practiced by amateurs and to a lesser extent, professional photographers. It was the creation of the French inventors and businessmen August and Louis Lumière. Autochromes are full-color glass plate transparencies. Unlike color separations that of themselves have no color, Autochromes are stand-alone color images, similar in appearance to a later-day Kodachrome slide.

The Autochrome image has often been compared to a pointillist painting, a style where paint is applied in small dots using a limited palette of color. Viewed up close an artist’s intentions are not at all obvious but when viewed at an appropriate distance the brain blends the closely spaced dabs of paint to reveal both a subject’s form and a wide range of color.

An Autochrome was made by randomly scattering on a glass plate minute potato starch grains that had been dyed red-orange, green or blue-violet. The grains were compacted under high pressure and intervening gaps between the grains were filled with lampblack. The reason for this was to be sure that only filtered light would reach the sensitive emulsion. A panchromatic emulsion was then applied over the grains. In use, the plate was exposed with the uncoated side of the glass facing the lens. Light passed through the colored grains, which served as miniature color separation filters, and on to the emulsion where the subject’s colors were recorded in monochrome by the silver halide crystals. The exposed and developed silver crystals varied in density according to the amount of light that was admitted by the colored starch grains.

As with any transparency the Autochrome is viewed by shining light through the plate. The silver crystals pass varying levels of light back through the colored starch grains and on to the eye. Reversing their role, the colored starch grains now act as microscopic viewing filters. The brain mixes the primary colors of adjacent grains to construct a wide gamut of hues, reconstructing the subject’s original colors.

The Autochrome plate was typically four times as expensive and required sixty times the exposure of a standard monochrome plate. However, to take an Autochrome photograph specialized equipment was not needed, any standard glass plate camera with a good quality anastigmatic lens and yellow-orange taking filter would suffice. The plate required simple reversal processing, with steps and chemicals similar to those used in the processing of black and white lantern slides. The plates were available in a wide variety of sizes for both stereo and mono cameras.

Autochromes can be viewed by a variety of means: by projection, with a hand-held Brewster-style viewer, with a Diascope (a specialized folding viewer), or by simply holding them up to the light.

Comments on the Processes
The Autochrome was on the market for over twenty-five years. It has been estimated that during that period some 20,000,000 plates were sold.

Of all the types of color screen plates that were available the Autochrome is the most popular with collectors as many are drawn to its intrinsically impressionistic quality.

Until the introduction of Kodachrome in 1935, color screen media were the only simple, user-friendly means of making a color photograph. What was missing though, and this was also true of Kodachrome at the time, was the ability to easily make a color print from a transparency. To make a print from an Autochrome it was first necessary to take color separation photographs of it. The separations were used in a difficult and lengthy assembly printing process such as Trichrome Carbro. Another disincentive to printing from color screen images is that the reseau, or color filter pattern becomes more obvious as an image is enlarged. In this regard Kodachrome had an advantage because it did not have a color screen.

Color separations of the sort made by Prokudin-Gorskii date back to James Clerk Maxwell’s May 17, 1861 lecture on the “Theory of Three Primary Colours”. Maxwell projected three color separation transparencies of a tartan ribbon and in so doing he recreated with reasonable fidelity the ribbon’s colors. This dramatic event established the foundation upon which all later developments in color photography now stand. However, until fully panchromatic emulsions became available in the early 1900s color separation photography was primarily an experimental endeavor, practiced by only a few dedicated individuals such as Frederick Ives and the Lumière brothers.

An early form of color separation that was sold for recreational and educational viewing is the Ives Kromogram, ca. 1895. Kromogram views and the Kromskop viewer make an excellent addition to a collection of early color photography.

Color separation photography was for many years the only way a professional could make a color print of the quality required for publication. For the professional and advanced amateur photographer the goal of separation photography was the color print. This print would need to be made by an assembly process, which unfortunately was not a simple matter. Assembly color prints were usually intended for exhibition or to be used as artwork for publication. Color separations are still needed by the publishing industry. They are used in the preparation of printing plates but the taking of color separations for most everyday photographic purposes ceased by the late 1950s. The era of the casual color print, the color snapshot, did not arrive until the launch of Kodacolor in 1942.

Color screen plates, typified by the Autochrome, and color separation photography were the two earliest non-experimental means for making color photographs. Color screen media in film form continued to be available well into the 1950s. Both Dufaycolor and Lumière Alticolor competed side-by-side with Kodachrome, Agfachrome and similar newer technology screenless chromogenic films. Both color screen media and non-graphic arts color separation photography enjoyed a lengthy run of some 50 years.

In my original article I wrote "It was possible in the early 1900s to make color prints from separation negatives but there is no evidence that Prokudin-Gorskii did so."  I've given a wrong impression that Prokudin-Gorskii never made color prints from his photographs.  What I had intended to convey was that the means he chose to exhibit his photographs was by projection rather than with photographic assembly prints, and that what remains of his expedition photographs are the original negatives and monochrome reference prints.  In addition, in my Miethe-Bermpohl camera Web page I added:

A number of Prokudin-Gorskii's color photographs were, however, published in print form.  They appeared in the monthly Russian photography magazine Fotograph-Luibitel (Amateur Photographer), a publication that he edited for a period of four years from 1906.  At the time, it was very uncommon for magazines to print color photographs.  This act was but another of Prokudin-Gorskii's bold initiatives that stemmed from his conviction that color would and should eventually supersede monochrome photography.


Allshouse, Robert H. Photographs for the Tsar: The Pioneering Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. New York: Dial Press, 1980.
Coe, Brian Colour Photography: The First Hundred Years 1840-1940. London: Ash & Grant, 1978.
Coote, Jack H. The Illustrated History of Colour Photography. Surbiton: Fountain Press, 1993.
Heydes Actino Photometer instruction sheet D.37.2000.18.9.2. Recommends exposing Autochrome plates for 60 times the time indicated for a standard plate.
Okuefuna, David The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn's Archives of the Planet. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.


Home Page A navigation frame with links to other pages on this site should appear on the left of this page.  If  it is not there, click HOME to make it appear.

Page created October 27, 2010