Even though it’s impossible to go back in time, thanks to the invention of photography, it is possible to take a very real look at the past. When picture taking was first invented, it was only possible to take photos in black and white. Everything changed in 1907 when Auguste and Louis Lumiere came up with autochrome. Now, take a look at some of the earliest, and most vivid pictures taken from this early era of color photography.
The Lady In Red
Known as “Christina in Red,” this photo is part of a set taken in 1913 by Mervyn O’Gorman. The subject is O’Gorman’s daughter, who would pose for him on the British countryside as part of a much larger collection.
To capture the vivid colors, O’Gorman used autochrome, a process involving glass plates coated in potato starch. Originally invented in 1907, autochrome would be how photographers created colored photos until the 1930s.
Daughters In A Garden
An autochrome shot taken by Etheldreda Janet Laing in 1908 shows her daughters playing in the garden at the family home. Laing was fascinated with picture taking at a young age, and studied art at Cambridge before becoming an amateur photographer.
You can tell the skill Laing had with lighting and colors as the purple dresses match the purple sky in the background. The bright color also pops against the more muted greenery around surrounding the subjects.
A Girl With Flowers
In 1908, French banker Albert Kahn sent a team of photographers around the world to take pictures using autochrome. This photo was one from a similar collection from 1914 and shows a girl with flowers in the middle of the road in vivid color.
You can see from this that while autochrome wasn’t a perfect technique, it was able to capture subjects in stunning detail. Looking at this, it feels like it could have been taken yesterday!
Musing By The Window
Taken in 1919, this photo is of Mrs. A Van Besten, the wife of the photographer. Here she sits, bathed in the sunlight by the window, with the family dog resting in her lap.
These pictures, while a little grainy in quality, made the process of colorization easier and cheaper than it had ever been. Before the process was created, someone had to be hired to color in photos after they were taken.
The Eiffel Tower
Another Albert Kahn photo from 1914, this one shows the Eiffel Tower from the ground up. Just through the arches and perfectly framed is the old Trocadéro Palace.
Named in honor of the Battle of Trocadéro, the palace stood from 1878 until 1937 when it was torn down. The palace was then replaced with the Palais de Chaillot. A true remnant of the past, this picture captures something that transports us to another time.
A True Original
One of the first colored photos taken by Louis Lumiere in 1907 is also one of the most gorgeous. All the colors pop and contrast perfectly, showing off just how innovative autochrome was.
In 1931, Lumiere developed a new process of colorization that replaced autochrome. This new technique was short-lived though, as Kodak came out with Kodachrome in 1935. Lumiere products continued to sell well in France, but worldwide, Kodak became the king of colored film.
The Public Market
Most large cities have outdoor markets in some form or another. This picture happens to be of Paris’ outdoor market in 1914. You can see how bustling it was with vendors and consumers. The green of the fresh produce and flowers highlight the image.
If you were to visit Paris today, you would find several different outdoor markets in which to spend your day, but they might not be as busy as this one was over 100 years ago.
A Man Painting In His Garden
Alfonse Van Besten captured this photo of himself painting in his garden in 1912. Because of how long an exposure could take, any random movement could blur the photo, explaining why the artist’s face is out of focus.
Van Besten, known for his work as a painter, was born in 1865 and passed away in 1926. During World War I, he lived as a refugee in Holland and gave lectures at various Dutch photography societies.
An Old Bridge
A more muted shot from Albert Kahn, this photo was taken in 1913 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This moment trapped in time came before the start of the first World War and shows a muted look at the calm before the storm.
We can’t imagine the people crossing the bridge had any idea about what was going to happen the next year. They were living in the moment, taking in the beautiful day.
This family portrait was taken at Roannay, in Belgium in 1913, by Georges Gilon. One of the most interesting things about this photo is the posing. The children clearly had trouble staying in one position long enough for the exposure.
The young girl in the top right corner had a particularly tough time with it. She almost looks like a ghost that was captured on camera. Thankfully we know that’s not the case — she just had trouble standing still.
The Fountain Of Neptune
Located in Florence, Italy, the Fountain of Neptune was first commissioned in 1565 and has been standing ever since. This photo was taken in 1910 and shows the fountain in all its glory.
The colors really set this photo apart. There’s a lot happening, and it’s framed perfectly inside the lush greenery. Sadly, the statue has a history of being vandalized, which is a shame to think about when you look at a picture like this.
A Mother Of Seven
Continuing to travel the world, this photo takes us to Ireland in 1913. Shown here is a mother of seven children working on the fringes of knitted shawls.
The shawls would be used to help keep her children warm as the year transitioned to the colder months. The red of her own shawl stands out the most in this photo as it contrasts with the harsher colors of the world around her.
A Young Girl And Her Dolls
Another early picture taken by Louis Lumiere, this particular photo shot on autochrome in 1913 features his daughter playing with her dolls. The quality of this photo is not as good as others we’ve seen, but it does show just how grainy the colorization technique could be.
While a lot of features are hard to distinguish, the colors stand out in this photo which really proves what autochrome could create just a few short years after being invented.
Welcome To The Moulin Rouge
This stunning photo of the Moulin Rouge was taken by Albert Kahn in 1915. The famous building was founded in 1889 as a cabaret house in Paris. After 25 years of success, the Moulin Rouge was destroyed by a fire.
Taken the same year as the fire, the photo carries us back in time, allowing us to re-live the moment as a tourist. The newly designed and built Moulin Rouge opened in 1921.
A Fairy In The Grass
While you may look at this picture and think it came from the 1970s, it was actually taken in 1909. The colors, while all similar, are still distinctly different, showing how stunning autochrome could be.
Years after being taken, the photo would be chosen as the cover for a re-release of Virginia Woolf’s book Between the Acts. The book was her last and was originally published in 1938. She passed away in 1941.
Balloons In France
From 1914, this autochrome photograph was taken in France, likely at the world’s fair, and beautifully captures large balloons floating inside a large building. If this is from the fair in France, it took place in the city of Lyon.
The fair in this location focused on urban planning and public health and was organized with the help of architect Tony Garnier. The most recent world fair took place in Beijing, China in 2019.
If you don’t recognize who the man in this picture is, it’s Charlie Chaplin, one of Hollywood’s most iconic figures. Snapped with autochrome in 1918, this photo is more subdued than we’re used to seeing from the physical comedian.
While we can’t say what has Chaplin so down in this picture, we can guess that maybe he’s taking a break during filming. Leaned against a pole with his signature hat and facial hair, this picture looks like a private moment made public.
Mark Twain Reading
Taken two years before his death in 1910, this photo shows Mark Twain relaxing in his bed with a book. Like other photos, the red featured here really pops thanks to the autochrome technique.
Twain, who was born the same year as Halley’s comet passed by Earth, died the same year it returned for another trip. He predicted his death would coincide with the comet’s return, even remarking that it would be his biggest disappointment if it weren’t to happen.
Mother And Daughters In Sweden
Whether by himself or through people he hired, Albert Kahn took a lot of pictures around the world using autochrome. This particular photo was captured in Sweden, near Gagnef, in 1910 and shows a mother with her two daughters wearing traditional clothing.
The full body dresses and headwear were created with bright colors that easily stand out against the more muted green background (although there are pops of color thanks to the flowers).
Women By A Brook
Bathed in lush greenery, this photo from 1910 almost hides its two female subjects in the bottom left corner to let the beauty of nature shine in the background. And while this might look like a painting, we promise you it’s not.
Autochrome was not a perfect process, and the more colorization processes a photo few goes through over time, the more it begins to look like a painting. That’s likely what happened here.
Sisters With Flowers
Earlier in this slideshow, we showed you an image of Etheralda Janet Laing’s daughters in a field wearing purple. This photo, taken in 1908, is similar, although the sisters are wearing green here and posed differently.
Unlike the previous picture, the sisters are the clear focus of this photo. Everything in the background is slightly blurred, allowing the color of their clothing and the red flowers in the foreground to stand out.
A Tourer From 1913
While this photo from 1913 is posed to make it appear the person behind the wheel is driving, we know that with how long it took to take a picture back then, that would be impossible.
Still, the car parked on the side of the road stands out as the sole focus of the image. Color composition is always important, and the photographers who embraced autochrome learned this early on in their experimentations with the new process.
A Street In Paris
Shot in 1914, this is a street in Paris in all of its autochrome beauty. It can be easy to look at an old black and white photo of the past and see it as a time that existed without color.
A photo like this proves that even if pictures were black and white, the subjects captured in them were often bathed in color — color that was finally revealed in still images thanks to Louis Lumiere.
A Parade Of Oranges
These inflatable oranges captured in Paris in 1914 help to show some of the limitations of autochrome. While the process was able to capture vibrant colors in the foreground, those in the background were much more muted.
You can almost see a line cut across the middle of this photo showing where the colors shift from bright orange to a darker grey and blue. Still, the overall scope of this photo is breathtaking.
A Soldier Eats Lunch
Autochrome was not used to only capture beautiful moments. This 1917 image shows a French soldier sitting down in front of a bookstore to eat lunch. He’s clearly exhausted from World War I, a devastating conflict that would last another year.
Images like this show the more intimate side of war, and the personal tolls it can take. We are used to seeing pictures of battles, but less so to seeing pictures of the individuals who are forced to fight in those battles.