Researchers Get a Deeper Look at Some of the Oldest Color Photos Ever

Two photographs taken by Gabriel Lippmann circa the 1890s. The image on the right is a self-portrait.
Two photographs taken by Gabriel Lippmann circa the 1890s. The image on the right is a self-portrait.
Image: © 2021 EPFL

Scientists have re-examined the creations of one of the earliest color photographers, Gabriel Lippmann, who used no pigments or dyes of any kind in his work. They sought to identify the original colors captured in Lippmann’s photographs and recreate the images using a similar process to that of the 19th-century photographer. The paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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“These are the earliest multi-spectral light measurements on record so we wondered whether it would be possible to accurately recreate the original light of these historical scenes,” said Gilles Baechler, a software engineer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, in an institute press release, “but the way the photographs were constructed was very particular so we were also really interested in whether we could create digital copies and understand how the technique worked.”

Perhaps you’ve ogled at the serene blue of Abraham Lincoln’s suit in a seated portrait or the bouquet of reds and oranges sprouting from the Hindenburg as it fell, ablaze, to ground. These colorized images from history are just that—the pigment was added decades after the photographer’s capture of the moment. What makes Lippmann’s work different is that it was captured in color, thanks to a process called the interference effect.

Lippmann made the discovery in 1891 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in 1908. As Lippmann himself explained in his Nobel lecture, “The method is very simple. A plate is covered with a sensitive transparent layer that is even and grainless. This is placed in a holder containing mercury. During the take, the mercury touches the sensitive layer and forms a mirror. After exposure, the plate is developed by ordinary processes. After drying the colours appear, visible by reflection and now fixed.”

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A view of the Swiss countryside in the 1890s.
Image: © 2021 EPFL

Because the color in each photograph was dependent on chemical reactions, Lippmann’s method wasn’t as true to the real world as, say, what modern cameras can do. So while the blue skies and piquant still lifes from 19th-century Switzerland are probably closer than what a typical 21st-century colorizer can do, the current research team sought to better tune those tones to what they actually were.

They examined some of Lippmann’s photographic plates, loaned by the Musée de l’Elysée. They experimented on the plates, testing their ability to reproduce colors and looking at how light penetrated them.

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“Although the reproduced light wasn’t the same as the original, we could design an algorithm that, given the distorted light seen when looking at a Lippmann photograph, would undo the distortions to reproduce the original light,” co-author Adam Scholefield, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, said in an email. “In other words, although there are distortions, the original information is still there.”

The team also built a prototype digital camera that they hope will be able to replicate Lippmann’s interference-based approach, substituting the photochemical components with lasers. Like Lippmann’s device, the researchers’ camera will be multispectral, meaning it will have a richer, more accurate array of colors in the images it takes than typical cameras, which rely on taking photos in three spectra and averaging their sum to create the color photo you see.

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Science writer at Gizmodo.

DISCUSSION

hamologist
Hamologist

Oh, man, I’d forgotten all about this guy! Thank you for spotlighting this project!

A couple additions from what I remember of my photo stuff, so please correct me if I’m wrong on on the details:

1. By “grainless,” Lippmann was referring not to zero grains period, but very fine grains — the emulsion in his plates was composed of silver halide crystals of a size I think on average one order of magnitude smaller than the ones used in current Tri-X 400, to reference a film people would be familiar with. I don’t know anything about lasers, but this general process has a good track record for high resolution, and I’m super excited to see what it can bring to digital imaging.

2. I’m pretty sure the Lippmann process is the last single layer emulsion and base only color process before the adoption of modern multi-layer dye film until Polavision in the 70s, which refracted or filtered different colors of light from the scene through tiny plastic prisms or filters or something built into the plastic base of the film onto specific parts of a single layer of black and white emulsion, and then projected it out the opposite way.

Which is really cool, because although I’m sure all of the existing unused Polavision cartridges’ instant chemistry has dried up in the pods by now, you still can shake up the reels in standard black and white developer and get what is vaguely but technically a color image.