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February 02, 2004
Old school in full colour

Michael Jennings did a posting about the surprisingly long history of colour photography, and I put a bit of it on Samizdata and asked about the very early Russian colour photos Michael mentioned. A commenter immediately referred us to the photographs of a certain Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

I found one photograph with an educational theme. It's called Group of Jewish Children with a Teacher:


This photograph was taken in Samarkand in 1911.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:55 AM
Category: HistoryTechnology

Even though I knew this post was about photography, I saw that image and thought, "Interesting painting."

Comment by: Jackie D on February 2, 2004 05:07 AM

Samarkand in 1911. Wow. The golden road and all that stuff.

You have to wonder what happened to them all; whatever it was I bet it wasn't pleasant. Let's see...twenty-six years until 1937...

Comment by: Andrew Duffin on February 2, 2004 04:40 PM

Very interesting. But it was also fairly common to have artists hand-tint photographs to add color to them. How can you tell for a particular photo--like this one--whether it's tinted or genuine color?

Comment by: David Foster on February 3, 2004 03:36 AM

Sergei Eisentein's Soviet propoganda movie 'Strike' has a hand painted red flag on each of the film's prints. The effect when the flag was raised at the end after sitting through the 2hour black and white film must have been rather, er, striking.

Comment by: Mark Holland on February 3, 2004 10:44 AM

Hitchcock had added a single red frame to the otherwise black and white Spellbound (1945) for effect when a gun was fired. And of course Spielberg did something similar at the end of Schindler's List much more recently. In both those cases it would have been possible to film the entire film in colour, but the films were made in black and white. This was probably mainly for budgetary reasons in the case of the Hitchcock, although maybe not. He was certainly someone who later demonstrated that he knew when to make a film in black and white even if he didn't have to, Psycho and The Wrong Man being two examples

Comment by: Michael Jennings on February 3, 2004 02:58 PM

The early process was an additive color process. If you look on the site that showcases the Russian photographer, you will see that the original image was shot on three separate glass plates -all in black and white. The next step was to print the three separate images on to the same substrate[coated paper] using three different colored filters. The end result was a color photograph.
To answer David Foster's question - one would have to compare a hand-colored image. There is something distinctly different. Namely, you can't really get color into the shadows. They remain black, grey with color laid on top of them or - as many do - dispense with putting color in those areas since they are shadows anyway.
The hand coloring of black and white films has a particular look to it- something along the lines of pastels over a charcoal sketch.

Ilford has a nice and simple explanation of the Autochrome process
along with some great examples.

The coloring of many Autochromes has a similarity to what one might think looks like a hand-colored photograph, but if you held it up for comparison one should be able to see the stark difference in the shadow areas.

Using color film and dumping the color is not the same as shooting in black and white first.
Black and white is about light and dark, highlight and shadows.
Color photography is about the color of the light.
It is distinctly different.
Hitchcock would never have been able to get the effects he is famous for by shooting in color.
Spielberg did three things. He began the film with a color image of a candle and transformed that into the black and white past. The shot itself was simply constructed so if he changed the film stock it was easy enough. The red coat was a different matter. He colored the red coat in the black and white film to make his point [not subtle]. The effect was quite different from the opening of the film. Kaminski shot it in B&W. In order to have the red coat appear as color was likely not possible as just changing your film stock and then dumping the color for those scenes. The lighting is completely different and the film reacts differently. Hence the red coat has that hand-colored appearance. He then ends the film by merging into a modern day technology of color. It's all packaged very nicely and uses B&W and color as symbolic reference.

At any rate, in still photography - many of those older color processes are just too deadly to use. We are left with the photos of the 50's up to the present that will be magenta or cyan and fading rapidly. The black and white images will continue on and deteriorate much slower. Only time will tell if the digital printers will solve the problem.

It's rather nice to see a color image from 1911. There does exist some older color images than that.

Comment by: cesek on February 3, 2004 07:13 PM

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thanks for all the education!

I am no expert on this stuff, but my understanding is that although the photograph was taken, and stored on those sheets of glass, in 1911, it was only reassembled, so to speak a few short years ago, by modern computer-assisted Americans.

If that's right, then I think it most unlikely that these Americans would have hand painted any of their pieces of paper, for they were more concerned to understand the original process and its possibilities than they were to prove to everyone that it was better than it really was.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on February 3, 2004 07:26 PM

Clearly cesek knows more about this than I do, but..

The site showcasing the photos actually says that Prokudin-Gorskii displayed his photographs via projection. That is, he created three black and white slides, put red, green, and blue filters over three separate projector lenses, and then projected the three images on top of one. If you are using an additive process, that is by far the easiest way of doing it, so I am not surprised.

At least, it was the easiest way of doing it prior to computer screens coming along. Putting them together and displaying on an additive (red, green, blue) computer screen is presumably quite easy. Converting them into cyan-magenta-yellow primaries that can be printed on paper using a subtractive process is easy with a computer - rather less so without one.

Comment by: Michael Jennings on February 4, 2004 12:09 AM
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