Visual Culture

How the World’s First Color Photograph Came to Be

Abigail Cain
Nov 19, 2017 1:00PM

First color photograph, taken by James Clerk Maxwell. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

As it turns out, the man responsible for the first color photograph wasn’t particularly invested in photography at all.

In the mid-1800s, Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell was far more concerned with his other, manifold interests—researching electromagnetism, determining the composition of Saturn’s rings, and formulating equations that eventually led to Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. (“One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell,” Einstein once said.) A great lover of British poetry, Maxwell was even known to compose his own verses.

He was also fascinated by color, theorizing in 1855 that every shade of the rainbow could be created through different combinations of red, green, and blue light. In 1860, Maxwell accepted a professorship at King’s College London, where he continued his experiments into perception and vision. Assisted by his wife, Katherine Mary Dewar, he set up an eight-foot-long wooden “colour-box” in the attic of their house in Palace Gardens Terrace, Kensington, which allowed for more precise mixing of the three primary colors of light to create other hues. “When experimenting at the window,” notes an 1882 biography of Maxwell, “he excited the wonder of his neighbours, who thought him mad to spend so many hours in staring into a coffin.”

His hypothesis, Maxwell realized, also provided a method for creating full-color images. By taking a series of black-and-white photographs through green, blue-violet, and red filters, one could project three separate images simultaneously onto a screen and end up with an image featuring the entire color spectrum. (These photographs were made using glass plates coated with light-sensitive emulsion, which  served as the primary photographic medium before film.) “It was actually not a color photograph in the modern sense,” Dr. Christine Kenyon Jones, King’s historian and author of a 2004 history of the university, told Artsy.

For all his theorizing, however, Maxwell didn’t get around to testing this process until 1861, some six years after he’d first written about it. And while the method may sound relatively simple to modern ears, “the fact is that it required a photographer of skill, perseverance and…with some luck to pull it off,” writes John S. Reid in a 2014 book on Maxwell’s life and work. That man was Thomas Sutton, the second professor of photography at King’s.

“King’s was an early pioneer in the study of photography, and King’s professors dominated the Photographic Society of the time,” Kenyon Jones said. “King’s had the first professor of photography, certainly in Britain, and we think in the world.” Sutton himself was a photographic pioneer, inventing the single-lens reflex camera and compiling the first British Dictionary of Photography in 1858.

Under Maxwell’s supervision, Sutton created three exposures of the same object through red, green, and blue-violet filters. They selected a tartan ribbon for the subject—a reflection, said Kenyon Jones, of Maxwell’s Scottish heritage. “I suppose they were also looking for something with varied colors in it,” she added.

Maxwell used the projection to illustrate his theories at a lecture at the Royal Institution in May 1861. He’d proved his point; he made no further effort to pursue the technology. “His real interest wasn’t the photography itself, but the qualities of light and human vision,” Kenyon Jones explained. It would be 30 years before someone picked up the threads of Maxwell’s work to produce practical results. And it wasn’t until 1906 that glass plates sensitive to the entire visible spectrum were available.

Today, the three physical plates that together made up the world’s first color photograph reside in Maxwell’s former home in Edinburgh (now a museum). As the polymath poet once wrote—likely unaware that he was neatly summing up his contribution to the field of photography—“These fugitive impressions,/ Must be transformed by mental acts,/ To permanent possessions.”

Abigail Cain