Colour photography at the V&A

The V&A holds a vast and varied collection of colour photographs, spanning the origins of photography in the 19th century to the present day. In addition, the museum's holdings of publications, equipment, advertising, packaging, and archival documents related to various colour processes paint a fascinating picture of the history and development of colour photography.

In 1839, photography was announced. The two processes – the daguerreotype and photogenic drawings – were both monochrome. It was only in 1861 that a viable path towards producing colour photographs was shown. In that year scientist James Clerk Maxwell presented his 1855 paper that theorised all colours could be produced via combinations of red, green, and blue light. With the assistance of photographer Thomas Sutton, Maxwell created three separation negatives of a tartan ribbon. These negatives were created using either red, green or blue filters. Maxwell projected these through their corresponding colour filter and when the three projections aligned, they produced a full colour image of a tartan ribbon. While it did not create a workable colour photography process, it proved Maxwell's theory and laid the foundations for many colour processes.

Grainy dark photo with a tartan ribbon in colour against a black background
Tartan ribbon, 'Vivex' photograph, by Dr D. A. Spencer, about 1937, England. Museum no. RPS.888-2019. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Around the turn of the 20th century, several colour processes were announced, including the Lippmann process in 1891. But it was not until the announcement of the Lumière Autochrome in 1907 that colour photography was widely accessible and available. From there, you see the development of numerous colour processes, notably Kodachrome, and later Polaroid's 'Polacolor'.

Many colour photography processes are incredibly light sensitive and therefore cannot be exhibited. The following films provide an insight into the V&A's colour photography collection and allow for them to be widely seen.

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Autochrome

In 1907, the Lumière Autochrome was released. The invention of the Lumière Brothers, Louis and Auguste, the autochrome was decreed a revolution and revelation in photography, promising natural colour images, realistic to life.

The glass plates produced painterly, soft colour images, an aesthetic related to their unique construction. Each plate consists of a silver gelatin layer on top of a colour screen mosaic made up of millions of potato starch granules dyed red, green and blue. After an extensive development process, the result was luminous, beautiful colour plates. These plates can only be viewed through illumination, or back-lighting. But, paradoxically, these plates are also incredibly light sensitive, prone to fading when exposed to light. For this reason, viewing autochromes can only take place in the dark on a light box set to a low light level.

Watch the video below to see some highlights from the V&A's collection, comprising around 2,500 autochromes.

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Kodachrome

While the autochrome encouraged a wider culture of colour photography, it had many issues, including its expense, fragility, and the requirement for lengthy exposures. Kodachrome, in contrast, was lightweight and affordable, with quick exposures, and produced vivid, brilliant colour images. Invented by Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky Jr. for the Eastman Kodak Company, Kodachrome was introduced in 35mm format in 1936 and effectively replaced the autochrome as the leading colour photography process. A colour reversal film, Kodachrome consists of positive colour images on a plastic base. Its use was widespread, and many would have been familiar with the Kodachrome slide show.

Learn more about Kodachrome, and the work of John Hinde, in the following film.

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Polaroid

Polaroid was founded on an idea by Edwin H. Land whereby clicking a button on a camera resulted in a fully formed photograph emerging. He realised this vision in 1947, developing 'instant' Polaroid film to be used in Polaroid cameras. The photographs were initially monochrome, until the arrival of Polacolour in 1963. The Polaroid offered a relatively quick means of capturing memorable moments or artistic compositions. The V&A holds a collection of Polaroids by noted artists and photographers, including Linda McCartney and Helen Chadwick. Prone to scratching and fading, Polaroid photographs have specific conservation requirements. Hear about these, and see highlights from the collection in the following film.

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Explore more of the V&A's photography collection.

Background image: Still life with table and colour tests, autochrome, by Lumiere, 1912. Museum no. RPS.1176-2019. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London