this was the arduous process to make them

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When we think of the years of the two great wars of the 20th century, black and white images always come to mind. But if we look, we find full color photographs of those warlike times. Some will say that they are colored by hand or that they are the result of artificial intelligence. But we must not forget that color photography was commercialized as early as 1907. His history is longer than many believe.


The first color photograph that is preserved (certainly older testimonies will appear in books or in the back of some warehouse) is from 1861. And it is made with a technique that is used today in digital photography. Physicist James Clerk Maxwell took three shots with three filters in front of the lens (red, yellow, and blue) and then printed those three negatives on the same paper with their respective filters. The trichrome is the origin of the famous RGB that we use today.

It was not a simple procedure and, in addition, it required that the object not move. But science continued to advance. And in 1907 the first color process began to be marketed by two old acquaintances, the Lumiere brothersthe inventors of moving photography, cinema.

The autochrome plate was the dominant process until the arrival of the famous Kodachrome in 1935, a slide film that until has a song. Then came its great competitor, the Agfachrome in 1936, from the German company Agfa, which had distribution problems due to World War II.

So, if we search, we can find color photographs of the two great world wars. There are not many for a simple reason: photographing in color was extremely complex and made the work very expensive. But it prevented its authors from resorting to the popular coloring of images to find the reds, greens, and blues of those years.

The beginnings of color photography

Photography was a true revolution when it appeared in the mid-nineteenth century. But it was black and white, and people were used to color in works of art or in portraits that they commissioned from artists. The black and white probably reminded them more of the prints.

So in the big studios of the time they had coloring workshops to illuminate the photographs and offer that service. Research accelerated to achieve color in a direct, less traditional way, without resorting to brushes and inks.

As a curiosity, we can see today great silent film classics with the color, with which they painted the negatives, restored. People wanted to see in color at all costs and all the studios painted and lit the film in the same way that they did in photography.

In all the stories of photography they name ‘Tartan Ribbon’ as the first in color. Its author, the one who shot the camera, was Thomas Sutton. And throughout the process it was led by the British physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

They were two eminences on their land. Photographer Thomas Sutton is the inventor of the SLR camera, and James Clerk Maxwell formulated the theory of electromagnetic radiation. And they joined their professional paths to achieve such a milestone.

Tartan Ribbon

The first color photograph

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, one of our Nobel Prize laureate scientists, published in 1912 ‘The photograph of colors’. He delved into the concepts put forward by James Clerk Maxwell (improved thirty years later by scientists Thomas Young and Hermann Helmhotz) and wrote one of the best books on the subject.

Color Photography

Book cover of Santiago Ramon y Cajal

As he himself wrote, he did not patent his advances due to the lack of interest from the industry and the absence of plate manufacturers in Spain.

Everything went the other way. And little by little, color photography began to appear in the media. French Autochrome plates were dominant on the market (the last batch was sold in 1955). In fact, the color photographs that we can find of the First World War are autochromes or autochrome plateas you prefer to call them.

France Paris Metro Auteuil Boulevard Excelmans 1920 Autochrome Poster

The Paris metro in 1920. Autochrome plate

The Kodachrome Revolution

And it was not until 1935 when two musicians, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, revolutionized the history of photography. They were hired, thanks to their scientific studies, by George Eastman, the owner of Kodak, to bring to market a slide that achieved the most faithful reproduction of color. The problem is that it could only be revealed in authorized laboratories. and it was a extremely complex process:

London Kodachrome By Chalmers Butterfield Edit

‘London’ in Kodachrome

They devised a negative film (yes, negative) in black and white (yes, in black and white) with three layers sensitive to the three primary colors, which were added in bath processes and exposures to different colored lights. In this way, the color tones were unified in a black and white film that was tinted in color.

This mythical film lasted 70 years in the market. He named a national park in the state of Utah, Paul Simon dedicated a song to it and changed everything forever. Of course, it could take two weeks to see the result of your vacation.

Color photography in the world wars

From what we have told above, it should not be strange to see color photographs of the two great contests of the 20th century. But we are very struck by the work of the photographers who dared to record everything in a different, more realistic way, during both wars…

We can highlight the works of Hans Hildenbrand on the German front, and Jule Gervais-Courtellemont on the French front during World War I. Like most of the photographs that were taken in that contest, they were posed. The light sensitivity of those plates was poor and there was no choice but to stage the shots. And it is clear that they were not made on the battlefront.

Hans Hildenbrand

Hans Hildenbrand, 1915 autochrome

They had all the freedom to capture the destruction of towns and cities. It leaves many of us speechless to see the ruins in the background with the relaxed soldiers, much closer to a painting than to a photograph of war as we understand it now.

Hans Hildenbrand

Hans Hildenbrand. German trenches in 1915

They worked with autochromes, with a sensitivity of 8 ISO. They could only do it in broad daylight and begging whoever it was that nobody moved during the exhibition. And they got a series that still impresses us today.

Jule Gervais Courtellemont

Trenches in 1915. Jules Gervais-Courtellemont ( Wikimedia Commons )

Color in World War II

During World War II the technology changed. Let’s remember that in 1935 Kodachrome appeared. He got away with it because the inventors of him, the musicians I mentioned before, wanted to see the real color in the pictures of him. And the truth is that the quality of a unique film impresses.

World War II Color Photographs

Frame from the video ’50 Historical Colorized Photos from the Second World War’

Again they are posed images, no fight scenes, and as a novelty, the occasional snapshot in which the people are seen celebrating the victory of their armies. But most are photographs of well-lit maneuvers and practices, because they still had a ISO10.

World War II Color Photographs

Still from ’50 Historical Colorized Photos from the Second World War’

Most are shot with a flash to compensate for poor light sensitivity. They do not stand out for their naturalness. It seems that we are looking at paintings instead of photographs. But the technology was not enough. To give you an idea, in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939), one of the first color films, the heat generated by all the spotlights that were necessary to illuminate the stage was so great that the thermometers rose to more than 40º .

The big magazines began to demand color photographs. AND they could pay twice as much as for a black and white image. But the times did not accompany. A black and white photograph could be developed on a helmet on a dark night. And you know how long it took to develop a Kodak slide…

World War II color photography

Still from ‘Historical Colorized Photos from the Second World War’

As an anecdote we can tell that the same Robert Cape, the money-hungry war photographer par excellence, tried again and again to shoot in colour. But he never excelled in this field. In the end, only postcard images came out of him without any harmony.

Because it is not easy to photograph in color. Many people ask if it is more difficult than black and white. The answer is simple: of course. Not only do you have to be aware of the light, but also of the harmony of the colors and their relationship with the shapes.

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Some say that with color they can feel horror closer. And for this reason they applaud the artificial coloring of the images. But after seeing these pictures I can say that horror always looks good anyway. And that it would be best if such events had never occurred.

When we think of the years of the two great wars of the 20th century, black and white images always…

When we think of the years of the two great wars of the 20th century, black and white images always…

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