Color photography first gained a peel thanks to potatoes

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This photograph was made in the early 1900s using the Autochrome process, which starts with dyed potato starch.
This photograph was made in the early 1900s using the Autochrome process, which starts with dyed potato starch.
Photo: Mervyn O’Gorman

The potato is one of the least colorful of the good Lord’s creations. But somehow, two French inventors figured out how the dud spud could help put color in our photographs.

 Before brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere tinkered with taters, photographers were shooting three different pictures of the same scene through colored filters — red, blue and green — and then sandwiching the images for projection.

In 1904, the Lumieres pulverized potatoes into a starchy powder, which they then divided into three separate batches for dying violet-blue, green and orange-red. When mixed together and applied to a glass plate, the microscopic grains of potato filtered the light, creating a negative that could produce a color photo. The process was called Autochrome.

An early Autochrome image.
An early Autochrome image.
Photo: Mervyn O’Gorman

These days, any of us can make a beautiful photograph with relative ease. We just point our smartphones at something that stirs our interest, snap the shot, and maybe tweak the colors with an Instagram filter. There’s no heavy lifting, no dangerous and laborious chemical processing, no pondering over the complicated evolution that put such a sophisticated camera alongside other tech marvels in a pocket-size package. It’s just you and the moment.

Since photography’s beginnings, pioneers were trying to figure out how to bring color to a photograph and cinematography. Artists applied oils to black-and-white pictures on tin and paper. In some of the earliest motion pictures, color was applied frame by frame, but that left the work inconsistent and feeling cartoonish.

Not long before the Lumiere brothers began experimenting with their color process, artists discovered the colors red, green and blue, when combined, offered a broad range of secondary colors. Early photographers shot separate images filtered through these colors before the Lumieres essentially created this filtering with the concentrated specs of potato starch.

The starch was evenly applied to a glass plate and then covered with a silver gelatin bromide. Once the picture was made, the plate would be developed as a transparency that would accurately represent the colors, saturated and dreamy in appearance.

The Lumieres presented their work in 1907 in front of the Paris Camera Club. Autochrome became the first accessible and commercially successful color process and was the standard through the early 1930s. The first color photos that National Geographic published were Autochromes, and the magazine’s archives today still contain some 15,000 Autochrome plates.

A photo from around 1914 showing an early color process under development by Kodak.
A photo from around 1914 showing an early color process under development by Kodak.
Photo: Kodak

While Autochrome was captivating amateurs and professionals around the world, Kodak began developing color processes and film for stills and cinema that eventually evolved into Kodachrome. A Kodachrome film test from 1922 surfaced a few years back and was restored. On the film, some silent film stars from the day do a sort of screen test with their colorful outfits. Like Autochrome, the colors were painterly, as seen in the video below.

By 1934, photographers who embraced shooting in color were using Kodachrome. Some of the photographers who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression documented rural poverty with 4×5 Kodachrome, and Kodak retains several early Kodachrome prints in its archives.

From the collection of Farm Security Administration photographs, Russell Lee made this portrait Jack Whinery and his wife Edith in Pie Town, NM., using 4x5 Kodachrome film.
This portrait of Jack Whinery and his wife, Edith, in Pie Town, New Mexico, was shot on 4×5 Kodachrome film. Its part of the Farm Security Administration collection.
Photo: Russell Lee

Every family has a historian with boxes of slides, Kodachrome memories from honeymoons, Fourth of July parades and trips to the lake.

National Geographic photographers and Paul Simon (Mamma, don’t take my Kodachrome away), made the color film famous.

One of Geographic‘s renowned shooters, Steve McCurry, who made the famous “Afghan Girl” portrait (on Kodachrome), recently published a book of photos he made with the last roll of Kodachrome to come out of the Kodak factory.

Even as camera sensors and megapixels have caught up to film in color richness and the recording of details, McCurry said the end of Kodachrome was like “losing a dear friend.”