What was the earliest color photograph?

The first color photo (taken by Maxwell, scanned by Janke - PD-EXP)

Photography was invented in the 1820s, based on work by Nicéphore Niécpe, which Louis Daguerre advanced to practical level, using Johann Heinrich Schultz’s discovery in 1816 that a silver and chalk mixture darkens when exposed to light. The problem was not the camera, per se, but how to capture the image.

The first color photograph was “only” a projected image. In 1861, James Clerk Maxwell had Thomas Sutton, inventor of the single lens reflex camera, take three photos of a tartan ribbon, using blue, green and red filters. The three images, projected by three projectors with filters in the same colors, produced a color image of the ribbon. Since the original photographic slides are still extant, in a small museum at 14 India Street in Edinburgh, Maxwell’s color image can still be reproduced. Maxwell is better known for his electromagnetic theory.

His system for producing color projections was refined by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, who produced a collection of colored images of Russia in the early 20th century for the Russian court.

After the Revolution, Prokudin-Gorskii settled in France. Eventually, his collection of more than 3600 slides was deposited with the Library of Congress, which has made the images available online, a very remarkable photographic record.

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