Pioneers of color

north-african soldiers

Highway to hell: Soldiers gingerly make their way across a path made of wooden duckboards in Chateau Wood
near Ypres, Flanders, during the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Shelling has reduced the wood's trees to gaunt skeletons

By Rob Ruggenberg

Above you see one of the few real color photographs of the First World War: a group of Spahis, Algerian soldiers, who fought with the French on the European battlefields.

Auguste and Louis Lumiere

Auguste and Louis Lumière

This beautiful picture was made by Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud, Chief of the Photography and Cinematography Organization of the French Army.

Tournassoud used a new technique, invented by Auguste and Louis Lumière, forerunners in photography and movies.

The first experiments with color photography were carried out in 1904 near Lyon in France, where father Lumière owned a photographic factory. In 1907 the Lumière brothers patented the autochrome process they had invented.

The picture of the Algerians above was made with such an autochrome plate. Microscopic grains of potato starch were dyed red, green, and blue-violet, then mixed evenly and coated onto a sheet of glass. A black-and-white emulsion was then flowed over this layer.

Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud

Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud

During exposure, the grains of potato starch on each plate acted as millions of tiny filters. The light-sensitive emulsion was then reversal processed into a positive transparency.

When viewed, light passes through the emulsion and is filtered to the proper color by the starch grains. The resulting mosaic of glowing dots on glass gives autochromes the look of pointillist paintings.

Autochromes were the first true color pictures, and the only industrial color photography process until 1935. Commander Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud and his photographers used this technique to record the circumstances under which the poilu's lived and fought.

Paget Plates and digichromatography

Frank Hurley

Another system, also used in that juncture, although on a much smaller scale, was the Paget Plate, invented in 1913: a color effect was achieved by looking at a black-and-white positive through a raster of colored lines.

The Australian War Memorial has a small collection of these Pagets taken by the famous photographer Frank Hurley who worked during the Great War in France and Palestine.

Color pictures made by Hurley and by his fellow-photographer Hubert Wilkens were in the splendid Captured in colour exhibition that toured Australia in 2004 and 2005. Some of their color pictures are shown on this site.

paget plate

Picture by Frank Hurley, 1914. Colour with Paget technique.

(Taken on the Endurance, the ship of the British
Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917, led by Shackleton)

There were more color-systems, all of them obsolete now. The Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii invented digichromatography, an astonishing three-color seperation system (one glass plate negative, three frames).

Prokudin-Gorskii travelled from 1905 until 1915 all over Russia and photographed prisoners-of-war, trains and lots of landscapes. We have some of his pictures here.


In the beginning of the century the Americans also experimented with color photography. Because the USA were still neutral in the beginning of the war the photographers of USA agencies were initially able to work on either side of the front.