Monday, February 7, 2011

Life In Living Color

Photographer Unknown - 1915
While researching late-Victorian, early-Edwardian tea gowns for the Ladies' Tipsy Tea in May, I ran across some photographs that stunned me - I should say their beauty stunned me. I know little to nothing about the history of photography, except to say that the first black and white photographs were taken sometime in the early nineteenth century (1830-1840), and that full color photographs were common by the mid-twentieth century. Before the 1950s, it seemed that any event captured by a photographic image was mired in varying shades of gray or sepia.

My grandmother - 1935
Many of our old family portraits are watercolored (the gray or sepia still very apparent), and while they give a glimpse of living color, it is only a glimpse. Of course, by the time I was born and knew my grandmother, her hair was winter white, rather than the glossy raven of her youth. Her skin, then, was fair and flawless, and her favorite color was cobalt. What I would not give to have a photograph of my grandmother as a young woman in color - not watercolor, but Autochrome, where I can see the inky black of her hair and eyes, the milky peach of her skin, and the shocking blue of her suit - sigh... You can imagine my surprise when I recently ran across color (not watercolored) photographs from the turn of the twentieth century! I have never seen anything like these pictures, I didn't knew that color photographs existed that early, and I am so happy that I inadvertently found them!

Charles Corbet - 1910
Like most tailors, when I research an era for costume, I always look at pictorial references, whether they are drawings, woodcuts, paintings, prints, or photographs - and with these sorts of media, the depictions of costume are often flat, exaggerated, or distorted at the whim of the artist. The images of decades and centuries past seem surreal and untouchable at times, and with the black and white photographs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is something of an exercise trying to imagine the color of life captured in a 3x5 frame, and this is not for lack of imagination or trying - lol!

Alfonse Van Besten - 1912
Most of the color photographs that I am featuring here (and in The Dressmaker's Album for further review) are from the site Autochromes From Belgium and the London Daily Mail - here, several famous and unknown early twentieth century Autochrome photographers have their works featured, and I promise you that you will not be disappointed. The photographs are mesmerizing, and while the color isn't always true (this is early technology under development), it's a wonder just to look at them - indeed, all early photographs have an immeasurable nostalgic and historic value, but these colored gems are rare beauties which give us a slice of life in living color. And, if these pictures aren't enough to charm you, maybe one of the earliest Kodachrome screen test will - enjoy!  


  1. Are these really colored photographs, or hand tinted prints? Coloring photographs is an art, and from the brightness of some of the colors and monochrome tint of the large areas, I'd say these were hand colored prints, which are still amazingly beautiful, maybe more so!

  2. Hi Berta - thank you for your comment - :)

    According to their sources, the photographs are not tinted - they are said to be all Autochrome/Kodachrome prints. Like you, I suspect that a couple of the photos are for the same reasons you have pointed out (my daughter is a professional photographer - I should have her look at them); but, like you said, regardless of whether or not a few have been colored, they are beautiful still!