history of Colour photography

Photography, as it is recognized today, was invented in 1839 when men like Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Sir John Herschel were accredited with various components that make up the standard photographic process.

Daguerre's sharp black and white photographs were favoured over Talbot's softly coloured images by consumers in the early 1840s and, as a result, it is often Daguerre who is credited with inventing photography. 


[Untitled], ca. 1850, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds (V683/IV/A/PT-5)

Daguerre was able to create the first permanent photographs using treated silver plates and mercury fumes. He called this photograph type the "Daguerreotype."


These photographs, which are rather soft by today’s standards, were both the negative and positive image in one and so could not be replicated – they were completely unique.

Photography developed predominantly from a desire to capture the world around us and the people we love in a manner true to life. Due to limitations of the day, early successes in the photographic process saw photographs rendered in monochromatic tones, lacking the vibrancy of colour found in the natural world.

The first obvious solution to black and white photography in the 19th century was to simply add colour to the picture with paints. In the realm of portraiture, photography came as a heavy blow since photographic portraits soon became cheaper to obtain than painted ones. Faced with the possibility of losing their livelihoods, portraitists began offering to paint photographs in addition to their own work, or wholesale changed professions and offered the complete process. Studios appeared on every street in major cities by the 1850s. The use of colour in portrait photography was a remnant held over from painted portraiture and did not extend in the same way to other photographic topics such as architecture or landscape.

Box Camera, 1840-1850, wood; glass; metal, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, 1979 (104.41.0005 a,b)

Folding Camera, 1890-1910, wood; skin; metal; glass, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, 1979 (104.41.0007)

Mary Catharine Robb, ca. 1865, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds (V683/IV/A/PT-1)

[Untitled], ca. 1860, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds (V683/IV/A/PT-19)

Note the faint pink tinting on the cheeks of these portraits.

Throughout the latter half of the 1800s new variations of colour photography continued to be released, almost all of which entailed introducing the colour during the development process. It could be argued that these processes did not achieve commercial success due to the fact that the development processes were complicated, time-consuming, and required multiple negatives of the same image. Additionally, unlike black and white photographs, which were printed on something stable like paper, glass, or precious metals, early colour photographs had to be displayed through a projector in order to be seen in colour.


There is another aspect to take into consideration when looking at why colour photography did not gain widespread commercial popularity until the latter half of the 20th century: people became used to black and white photography.

Camera, 1900-1903, skin; metal; wood, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Gift of Unknown, 1968 (104.41.1004 a,b)

[Untitled], ca. 1925, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Caroline Hinman fonds (V282/III/B/PS-8)

Victoria Glacier, 1900, Mary M. Vaux, photographer, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Vaux family fonds (V653/I/NA-328)

By the 1850s and 60s not only were photographic development processes getting faster and cheaper, cameras were also advancing – they became lighter, lenses improved, and exposure times dropped down to seconds rather than minutes. People were soon able to take photography out of controlled environments and go farther afield. One of the most obvious topics that drew such intrepid photographers was war. In 1969, Helmut and Alison Gernshiem wrote in The History of Photography that wars have always been exciting topics for pictures if the photographer is willing to venture into those war zones. They said that war photographers also took gambles when selling their photos to newspapers because they were also selling them to the public. Because newspapers into the late 1900s were printed in black and white, the public became accustomed to seeing "newsworthy" photographs in that format. 

Serious photographs, real photographs, true photographs were in black and white. So confident was the public in this opinion that it became its own kind of fact for decades. As George Eastman and the Eastman Kodak Company began to establish themselves as a dominant figure in the field of photography, even their efforts to introduce commercially available colour film were met with resistance. Photography had reached a point around the mid 1900s where a photograph was not taken seriously by the public or critics alike if it was in colour.  


[Untitled], 1940-1945, Nicholas Morant, photographer, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Nicholas Morant fonds (V500/I/A2/S/5/NA-1)

Nicholas Morant contributed to the Canadian War effort from 1940-1945 by taking photos of munitions factories and soldier training camps across the country.

The introduction of celluloid film as an alternative to glass-based photography in the early 20th century opened up new avenues in the field of photography that included both moving pictures and natural colour photos.

By 1939 Kodak’s Kodachrome film dominated the commercial market. While glass-based slides were still being produced, and many “professional” photographers still worked in black and white, the general public increased their use of colour film for their pictures. Far from being the only manufacturer on the market by the mid 20th century, Kodak went on to become a name synonymous with photography. The age of digital photography has hampered Kodak’s prominence in the industry, but even today it is an instantly recognizable name.

Kodak Retina II, ca. 1940, metal; glass; skin, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Gift of Clifford J. White, 1988 (104.41.1077 a-c)

Kodak Retina II, ca. 1940, metal; glass; skin, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies,Gift of Clifford J. White, 1988 (104.41.1077 a-c)

View of the Banff Springs Hotel and Golf Course, 1939, George Vaux X, photographer, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, George Vaux X fonds (V654/I/E/PS-9)

A short rest, 1925-1931, Leonard Leacock, photographer, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Leonard Leacock fonds (V353/I/B/PS-30)

Our relationship with colour photography has changed significantly in the 21st century thanks in large part to the widespread influence of the digital camera. Now not only are we able to capture the world around us in real colour, we can review the picture and make edits almost as soon as it is taken. Smartphones equipped with cameras have made it easier than ever for people to take pictures and share them with the world.