Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New Insight into Colors of the Past

As a Costume Designer, I frequently look at historical photographs for my research.  There are collections of portraits that inform me as part of my process.  I investigate what people wore and how they wore it so I can replicate that a bit more accurately for our contemporary productions set in those historical eras.

It's part of my regular, normal process to research historical eras by looking at old photographs.  It's absolutely necessary for accuracy and for simple basic information.

But color in photographs prior to 1935 is rare.  Kodak invented Kodachrome in 1935, and instant color was invented by Polaroid in 1963.  So finding color exposures is pretty uncommon before those times.  As a costume designer, I rely upon illustration and art to inform me about historical color palettes and favored hues during eras prior to the 1960s, really.  When one goes to explore magazines, it isn't until the 1960s that we experience photographs replacing illustrations as the main images.

So this is what makes finding color in photographs from the early 20th century so remarkable.  And there's a new book out featuring the work of a man who took a whole bunch of them: Albert Kahn.

BBC Books, in association with Muse√© Albert Kahn, has published a book of his work to accompany a BBC television series.  The color images were originally developed in 1907 using a process involving thin layers of potato starch and carbon particles, according to Fanny Wentzel on

Here are a few examples of the work in the book.  It includes photos from all around the world, and multiple cultures, making it even more fascinating!  The images almost look Photoshopped to our contemporary eye (in my opinion), but regardless--isn't it wonderful to see true color from 1907?!  It's like looking into a time machine!  Remarkable!!

Personally, I can't wait to get my hands on this book!  Woohoo! It can be purchased here.

Until next time, Live Life with Relish!


  1. Wow. Albert Kahn. How amazing his story is! 72000 Autochromes?! Of course I would love to see them all... but it got me thinking about how they must be catalogued. I am such a geek, but I would love to see how they have filed them!

    Wouldn't it be amazing to be able to launch such an unforgettable and visionary project? Imagine the dinners he had with the photographers he assigned. Imagine the adventures they all had and the things they saw. Boy. What a life.

    I had not even heard of Albert til I popped over here. So thanks.

  2. Oh and one more thing! This article (referencing Kahn) has something really great to say about Photography and the demise of the printed image. It's a bit like what we were talking about on Make and Meaning... only different!


  3. That, Pip, is an AWEsome article! Thank-you thank-you thank-you for pointing me toward it! It made me feel such loss for something so integral in my life that I didn't realize was slipping away right in front of me...

    How interesting that we two are hip deep in a DIY world, where our ability to contemplate the joy of something crafted and made is cherished and celebrated, even in the face of a global civilization that is all about temporary consumption and instant gratification. I don't think of it as nostalgia--it's becoming almost a responsibility to pay attention to the small things that are so often overlooked and forgotten. After all, if we don't who will?

    I've been to your blog--what fun! I will be perusing it in more detail soon, but I had to reply to your comments first. Thanks so much for writing on Make and Meaning--you're really contributing to something that's important for all of us.

    For all of you out there reading this comments--go check out Pip's blog--

    And then go check out her writings at this other blog:

    You'll be glad you did!

    Thanks again, Pip!


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