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First Published Natural-Color Photo

The first natural color photograph to appear in National Geographic was an Autochrome depicting a flower garden in Ghent, Belgium, published on page 49 of the July 1914 issue.

Photo: Garden in Ghent
Photograph by Paul G. Guillumette

It was made by Paul Guillumette and bore no editorial relation whatsoever to the articles it was printed alongside. It was there purely to demonstrate a technical achievement: that real color photography—color in the camera, as opposed to hand-tinting—could be engraved and printed in the pages of a popular magazine.

Such an achievement was largely unheard of, or rather unglimpsed by, the general public, because color photography was barely seven years old.

Invented by two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière of France, the Lumière Autochrome (meaning "self-coloring") process was first marketed in 1907. It featured a glass-plate negative evenly covered with a wash of minute grains of potato starch dyed with the basic colors of red, green, and blue. This, the filter mosaic layer, was then covered with a panchromatic emulsion. To make an exposure, the plate was in effect flipped over so that light entered through the back of the plate, filtering through the dyed, transparent potato starch grains until it struck the emulsion. When the plate was developed, the negative silver image was turned into a "pointillist positive" by a reversal process.

Not an Easy Process

It may have been the first practical method of making color photographs, but it was cumbersome and slow. A photographer needed a trunk to carry the heavy glass plates and a tripod to set up his large-format camera, because the Autochrome was so slow it needed, even in bright sun, an exposure of one or two seconds at f/8. That meant, of course, that only landscapes, still lifes, and posed pictures could be made.

Nevertheless, the process gave a lovely, serene, autumnal color that for the better part of two decades infused the pages of National Geographic. In the worlds of photographer Volkmar Wentzel, it showed, "with greater realism than ever before, pictures of Buddhist morality plays from remote Chinese monasteries, folk customs from Europe, starvation ravaging Armenia, and the first underwater scenes of life on a coral reef."

Maynard Owen Williams had to resort to flash powder to get enough light for daytime exposures under the "leaden skies" of Greenland, and W. Robert Moore had to ask Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia to "hold it" for ten seconds while posing in his coronation robes, but the National Geographic Society loved the Autochrome process, eventually amassing a collection of nearly 12,000 Autochromes.

Not that change wasn't welcomed. When marginally faster Finlay plates and Dufay film were introduced, they were quickly adopted so that the magazine could keep its cutting edge in natural color photography. Then came Kodachrome, "that miracle of photographic chemistry," as Wentzel put it, that would dominate the rest of the century for photography. As for Autochromes, they were quickly forgotten, "and the cumbersome glass plates were trucked to warehouses, where the tooth of time took its toll."

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