Friday, September 26, 2014

Early Colour Photographs

I often find old colour photographs that are hand-tinted black and white shots, but the genuine article is a rarity. Today I found three early examples of a medium that, to my surprise has existed since the 1860s. The first one, from 1919, is particularly gorgeous:

At first glance I wasn't sure where the picture was taken, but then I realised that it had to be British. What other country would have anything as daft as garden gnomes? The photograph was taken by an amateur - a Mrs A Barton - and is called 'Harvest Bounties'.

The next picture was taken by a Frenchman called Jean Tournassou in 1915:

'Soldiers in the Field' is beautifully composed, but perhaps it also shows how the French army, with their colourful uniforms and ceremonial swords, were an anachronism in the machine age (he said, quickly checking Wikipedia to see if an off the cuff sweeping generalisation can be backed up).

This picture was taken by Louis Lumiere of his mother and her granddaughter. It's hard to believe that this is actually a photograph, as the sepia hues and quality of light make this look like an oil painting. The granddaughter looks particularly Rubenesque.

Finally, two images that are a far cry from the age of Lumiere, but really exited me when I saw them yesterday: the surface of the planet Venus.

The only pictures I've seen up until now have always been distorted and of poor quality, but someone has taken the raw data sent back from the Soviet Venera probes and used it to reconstruct the actual view. As you can see, our "sister planet" looks even less inviting than Mars:

(On a nerdy, space probe note, I'm really looking forward to seeing the first close-up pictures of Pluto, when the NASA mission arrives there next July).


Roger Allen said...

"'Soldiers in the Field' ... shows how the French army, with their colourful uniforms and ceremonial swords, were an anachronism in the machine age"

Even later- in 1940- the Nobel prize-winning novelist Claude Simon was in a cavalry unit which wore plumed helmets and breastplates and carried sabres.

nilly said...

These are wonderful! Are you selling them on your book selling site?

Steerforth said...

Roger - It's extraordinary that the French were still doing this in the 1940s. Perhaps France was complacent in victory, when it should have been asking itself why Germany almost reached Paris at one point.

Nilly - I'm a very poor businessman, as I usually only use material from books that I'm not selling. What usually happens is that I find something I love in a book, discover that it's completely worthless and rather than simply consigning it to the oblivion of the recycling machines, I scan the best bits for posterity.

Today was a case in point - a photography book of no value, but with three pages of beautiful pre-1920 photos that deserved a wider audience.

Lucy Melford said...

I'm very glad you have published these early colour photographs. I feel inspired to find more myself. I take a lot of photographs, notably on my travels around the country. But I've always enjoyed well-composed and historically interesting shots from 1920 and before. And somehow colour stops them being remote and other-worldly, and part of a myth.

I live only a quarter of an hour from Lewes - could you indicate which is your shop (though I have my suspicions!)

Lucy Melford

Steerforth said...

Lucy - Yes, the colour creates an extraordiary immediacy. The Retronaut website has some wonderful examples.

Re: Lewes - I don't have a bookshop here, just an online business, which I run from a farm a few miles away. I don't think I could face having a shop again.

Gardener in the Distance said...

Steerforth, when I saw your first photograph I assumed immediately it was from the 1960s. So, for me, that shows how time repeats, or how what we think of as the past can be recent, and how what we assume to be recent can have come from long ago. Wonderful pictures.

George said...

I have seen old National Geographics with photographs that appear to be hand-tinted. I wish that I could remember what years they were from: I'd say about 1940, but that seems pretty late.

Martin Hodges said...

The first shot is particularly beautiful.

Steerforth said...

Gardener - I was also shocked to discover that I wasn't looking at a 1970s photo - it could be an advert. Photos like that stop us defining people of the past as "others".

George - Time Life have a good archive of original colour pictures. The Depression-era shots from around 1940 are particularly good.

Martin - I'm surprised that it sin't more well-known.

Anonymous said...

These are terrific. Thanks for posting them. There are some color motion pictures from the 1910's. They may be available on YouTube.

I have no knowledge of French military uniforms, but isn't they typically a more formal uniform for parades and special occasions than what is worn in the field? I'm sure the photographer here asked for the most colorful uniforms for his picture.

Little Nell said...

These are wonderful. I especailly like the one of Lumiere’s mother. I’m so glad you have scanned them for us all to enjoy; would it be worth putting them on Flickr?

Chris Matarazzo said...

The gnome picture leaves one feeling particularly chronologically imbalanced. The unexpected presence of color makes it feel more like the 1970s than the teens. Cool.

Dale said...

I've been looking and looking at the Lumiere photo.

I figure it was a slow day in Heaven - it can get awfully busy up there - and in the Arts and Culture Quarter there was bickering over who was to be the photographer's muse.

"Let me do the backdrop and lighting!" insisted Rembrandt."And they can have the portrait of my mother reading for inspiration for the old dear."
"Okay by me," said Vermeer,"providing the light comes in through a window on the left. Always worked for me."

"I want to do the young woman." interjected Renoir."Big, busty,voluptuous, lots of hair, deliciously working class..."
He was mid lip-lick when felled by a vicious jab from Mary Cassatt's harp.

"Butt out, buster," she said. "When it comes to portraying big-hair girls in family settings while still leaving them with their dignity intact, I've pretty well got the market cornered. You stick to your busty bombshells."

"Could you manage a touch of my Saskia about her?" murmured Rembrandt, his lip trembling. "Done!" said Cassatt, sliding an arm round his shoulder.

And so it was.

Steerforth said...

James - Yes, there are quite a few vintage colour films on YouTube. My favourite is one of London in 1926.

Nell - I should do that, or pass them on to Retronaut. It's just finding the time at the moment.

Chris - It reminds me of an early 70s advert - pick up any magazine from that era and you'll see a model who looks just like her. I'd love to know more about the background to the picture.

Dale - As they say these days, you've nailed it. It's a curious inversion of the traditional compliment that a painting is so good, it could be a photograph".