Rare Collection of Early-Color Photos That Can Never See the Light of Day

F A Paneth, Students in a lecture at University of Konigsberg [Kalingrad], 1929-33, autochrome, V&A, RPS.1538-2020 © Estate of F A Paneth

Autochromes were the first widely available form of color photography but they are so light-sensitive that putting them on display could ruin them forever.

Patented in 1903 by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiére, autochromes sparked worldwide excitement when it was shown to the public. One demonstration at the Royal Photographic Society in London was so oversubscribed they “were almost unable to cope.”

Mervyn O’Gorman, Christina, August 1913, autochrome, V&A, RPS.611-2020 © Estate of Mervyn O’Gorman
Baron Adolph de Meyer, Tamara Karsavina, c.1908, autochrome, V&A, PH.1234-1980 © V&A
Hugh C. Knowles, The Rhododendron, 1911, autochrome, V&A, RPS.665-2020 © V&A
F A Paneth, An enlargement of the colour screen of an autochrome plate, 19 December 1912, autochrome, V&A, RPS.1462-2020 © Estate of F A Paneth

The technique involves dusting a glass plate with dyed, microscopic potato starch particles, which act as color filters. The plate is then loaded into the camera with the bare glass side facing the lens so that light passes through the filter layer before reaching the emulsion.

While the process worked, actually viewing the photos was incredibly difficult as they tend to fade away when exposed to light. But a new book has carefully digitized them allowing them to be viewed by all.

Helen Messinger Murdoch, The Taj Mahal at Agra, 1914, autochrome, V&A, RPS.362-2017 © Estate of Helen Messinger Murdoch
Henry Essenhigh Corke, Mother and Child, 1912, autochrome, V&A, RPS.1263-2019 © V&A
Helen Messinger Murdoch, Nile Boats at Luxor, January 1914, autochrome, V&A, RPS.88- 2018 © Estate of Helen Messinger Murdoch

Colour Mania has been created from the London Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) collection of more than 2,500 autochromes and the book is the only way to see the V&A’s significant collection.

“Photographed with great care for this book, the V&A’s abundant collection of autochromes is brought to the public for the very first time,” says the U.K.-based museum.

“Organized thematically and with in-depth sections focusing on the photographers who engaged with the process, Colour Mania is built upon the latest scholarship and research by Catlin Langford and includes insights into how these extraordinary photographs are being preserved for future generations.”

F A Paneth, Altaussee, c.1928, autochrome, V&A, RPS.3045-2018 © Estate of F A Paneth
John Cimon Warburg, The Japanese Parasol, c.1909, autochrome, V&A, RPS.1276-2020 ©V&A
John Cimon Warburg, Jon in Red Riding Hood Cape with Basket, 6 November 1907, autochrome, V&A, RPS.494-2020 © V&A

Colour Mania is published by Thames & Hudson in association with the V&A and is available for $53 (£45).