After decades of pioneering color photography technology, National Geographic magazine introduced a new era when it became the first major American periodical to print an all-color issue in February 1962.
With the invention of the small, lightweight Leica camera and Kodak's 35mm Kodachrome film, the magazine was able to publish more color in its editorial pages throughout 1962 than any other major magazine in the country.
Although National Geographic was awash with color in 1962, it was hardly the first time its pages saw the brilliance of pigment. In November 1910, the Geographic published its first color photographs, 24 hand-tinted pictures of Korea and China taken by William Chapin. Four years later in July 1914, readers raved over the magazine's first natural (not hand-tinted) color photograph, an Autochrome by Paul Guillumette depicting a flower garden in Ghent, Belgium.
Color printing was a serious financial gamble for the National Geographic Society in the 1910s—each color page cost four times the amount of a black-and-white page—but readers' enthusiastic response and a subsequent jump in ad revenues convinced the editors to continue publishing more color.
Leading the Way
National Geographic was as committed to color photography in the lab as it was on the page. President Gilbert H. Grosvenor wrote in 1963, "In photography—and particularly in the use of color—we have led the way from the start."
That early technical leadership began with Autochrome, the first color technology adopted by the Society. Invented by the Lumière brothers in 1907, this commercial color process used a glass plate coated with dyed potato starch and a photographic emulsion through which light passed when the plate was exposed. Although it was revolutionary at the time, Autochrome required heavy cameras and fragile glass plates, with slow exposures.
The Society adopted the faster Finlay process in the 1930s, which allowed Melville Bell Grosvenor to take the first published natural-color aerial color photographs. Germany's Agfacolor replaced Finlay a few years later, employing bits of dyed resin with an exposure time of a fifth to a tenth of a second. Faster yet, the Dufay process quickly succeeded Agfacolor, with the added advantage of utilizing film rather than glass.
But the real breakthrough came in 1936 when Eastman Kodak introduced Kodachrome, color film with a threefold advantage: a grainless image produced by dye, not granules of silver; a faster exposure time; and less cumbersome equipment—no glass plates or heavy cameras. Kodachrome's 35mm film combined with the lightweight Leica camera and the Geographic's move to high-speed web printing ushered in an era of fantastically increased quality and efficiency for the Society.
Over the course of more than half a century, color photography breathed fresh life into the pages of National Geographic. As its images metamorphosed from dull grays to rich Technicolor, the magazine too evolved from a technical journal with a small audience to one of the country's most popular magazines, packed with stories and images of exploration.