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Color Photography's Sesquicentennial

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 25, 2011 10:15 PM

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150 years ago this month, the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (inventor of electromagnetic theory) and Thomas Sutton, a photographer, took the world's first color photograph. The photo, of a tartan ribbon, was actually created by taking three black-and-white photographs; they were taken through red, green, and blue filters, and then thrown onto a screen by three projectors, each casting its light through a filter of the appropriate color (like so). Maxwell came up with the scheme when he discovered that the cells in our retinas are sensitive, separately, to red, green, and blue light. Maxwell presented the photo during a lecture at King's College London on May 17, 1861.


The first color photograph.

Phil Coomes, a photo editor for the BBC, explains that up until the 1980s color photos were still transmitted and broadcast this way:

As late as the 1980s wire photographs would be transmitted by news agencies such as the Associated Press and printed out by the client as three black and white pictures; these would then be photographed through the same filters and re-constituted as a colour print. As electronic delivery took over this method moved to the computer, but even then the pictures would arrive in three parts ready for the client to reassemble. It was sometime before full colour transmission was widespread.

When an image needed to be shown on color TV, producers would snap a Polaroid of the three filtered and projected images, and then put it in front of the camera.

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