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Color photography has been the default for everyone from advertising photographers to amateurs (with occasional artistic exceptions) for decades. It’s been predominant for so long that black and white photographs have become visual shorthand for “historical”. But who was the first to crack the color code? Who invented color photography? 

Lourdes by Louis Ducos Du Hauron

Lourdes by Louis Ducos Du Hauron, {{PD-US-expired}}

As with many scientific breakthroughs, it’s hard to pin down exactly who should get the credit. There were several key players who made significant contributions, often building off of each other’s work. No progress takes place in a vacuum, after all.

The first person to claim the invention of color photography was Levi Hill, an American minister from upstate New York. In 1851, he announced his process, which he called heliochromy. He was met with intense skepticism—many of his contemporaries assumed he was a fraud using hand-tinting to color his photographs. His attempt to exonerate himself by publishing a book on his process in 1856 was a massive failure, and he went to his grave as a delusional charlatan in the eyes of his peers. 

Levi Hill 1850, Author Unknown, {{PD-US-expired}}

However, in 1981, photographer and historian Joseph Boudreu was able to replicate the technique described in Hill’s book, and found that it did work—at least a little bit. Subsequent research has proven that while some of the colors in Hill’s original photographs were fraudulently added, others were genuine. So, even though his results were shoddy, his claims exaggerated, and his process far too complicated to be practical, he deserves a nod of acknowledgement for his contribution to color photography (or for his gall, at the very least). 

Still Life 1855 by Levi Hill

Still Life 1855 by Levi Hill, {{PD-US-expired}}

While Hill was busy sparring with his detractors, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell was doing research on color vision. In 1855, he published a paper on the subject that would become foundational to color photography. In it, he described the three-color method, a process that would theoretically allow one to take a color photograph using red, green, and blue filters. His theory was first put into practice by Thomas Sutton in 1861. 

James Clerk Maxwell 1870

James Clerk Maxwell 1870, Author Unknown, {{PD-US-expired}}

Sutton used Maxwell’s method to produce a photograph of a multicolored ribbon as a visual aid for one of Maxwell’s lectures. Historians were later stumped by the apparent success of the experiment, as Sutton’s photographic process was completely insensitive to red light, and only barely sensitive to green. They eventually concluded that—thanks to a fluke involving the dye on his filter—Sutton had captured red in his photograph thanks to ultraviolet light. Though it turns out that Sutton’s photograph didn’t actually use the three-color method the way it was meant to, Maxwell’s theory was sound, and is still used in nearly every practical color photography process to this day. 

Tartan Ribbon 1861, by James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Sutton

Tartan Ribbon 1861, by James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Sutton, {{PD-US-expired}}

In terms of photography, Maxwell was more concerned with theory than application. However, his work opened new doors for his contemporaries. French scientist Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron started using Maxwell’s three-color principle to develop practical color photography processes in 1862. He patented his ideas in 1868, and published them in 1869. Ducos du Hauron continued to refine and improve his process throughout the 1870s. 

It wasn’t until Irish physicist John Joly hit the scene that color photography became commercially viable. In 1894, using methods proposed by Ducos du Hauron, Joly invented the self-referential Joly color screen process, which used a glass plate printed with fine lines of red, green, and blue to produce color photographs. Simpler and more economical than any previous processes, it hit the market in 1895—a landmark achievement in the world of photography. 

John Joly by Alfred Werner

John Joly by Alfred Werner, {{PD-US-expired}}

As you can see, it’s difficult to give full credit for the invention of color photography to any one person. Hill may have been the first, but his methods were questionable at best and fraudulent at worst. Maxwell laid the groundwork with his three-color theory, but he didn’t stray far into the realm of the practical. Joly made it to market with his process, but he never would have succeeded without Ducos du Hauron’s contributions to the field. So, we’ll call it a collaboration and pay them each their due. 

Looking for a photographer a little more current than those mentioned above? Contact Michael Grecco today. A bi-coastal advertising photographer based in Los Angeles and New York, Grecco will help you bring your vision to life. Get in touch at (310) 452-4461 or send an email to info@grecco.com