Stunning Color Photographs From a Century Ago

One thing black & white pictures are good at without any doubt is representing the past. It seems as if it is programmed in our heads that if a movie or a picture is in black and white, that it is old. It simply fits, and not just because photography and movies were in black and white back in the day. It is as if we remember in black & white. And dream in black & white. And past is often quite close to a film noir-like dream. But what happens when you take a look at a picture that is a hundred years old…and in color? Well, here is something special for you.

Self-portrait Prokudin-Gorskii 1910

The photograph you see above was taken in 1910 by the man who is sitting there. His name is Sergey Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky and he is the guy who figured out how to take color photographs using black & white photography techniques with red, green and blue filters. And, as we can see, he did, with some support from Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. At first, it seems that there is none of the oldness left, none of that different time or different people. I must admit that, for a while, I thought these people were from a circus. And not a very good one. But then you start to notice things. Details. And it hits you – these photographs are a hundred years old. A hundred!

Trans-Siberian Railroad 1910

A Bridge over the Kama River, Ural Mountains Region 1910

Interestingly enough, dogs looked the same back then. And flowers, for that matter.

A Dog 1910

Cornflowers 1909

Important people didn’t, however. This was the Emir of Bukhara, which in 1910 was where Uzbekistan is now. Not the first man you’d want to talk to if you could jump back in time, is he? The sword is likely real and not made in China. And, I think, he is also not an actor.

The Emir of Bukhara, Modern Uzbekistan 1910

Armenian Woman 1910

A Group of Women in Dagestan 1910

While you go through more of these photographs and read about them here, let me show you what Americans were up to a few decades later (between 1940-1943) – these were sent in by our reader and we enjoyed them immensely. Take a look:

YB-17 Bombardment Squadron 1942

1942 Annette del Sur

1942 Assembly of B-17F Bomber

Although these photographs have a taste of Cold War to them that started soon after, although they are a little patriotic in a certain pompous, old way, it is not even the technical quality that is astonishing. They are lit. Deliberately, with studio light and, in fact, in such a way that they would not look out of place in a modern portfolio. Not at all. You may notice some awkward posing and smiles at times, but that is what makes them so charming, so Broadway Musical-ish. And the color, look at the color! It is the sort of look we try to achieve with Lightroom today. Ironically, these photographers – Alfred Palmer and John Vachon – managed to both lit and photograph these scenes in a way that some of us are still learning to do with great modern tools.

1942 Army Test Pilot

1942 US Navy

And then there are women assembling planes. Not something you see every day, is it? Robots do that now.

1942 Engine Installers, Long Beach, California

1942 Work on a Bomber

Visit Pavel Kosenko’s blog to see and read more about these photographs.

1943 Schoolchildren, John Vachon


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Avatar of Romanas Naryškin About Romanas Naryškin

A student and a wedding photographer with a passion for cinematography and writing. You'll see me buying film even when there's no food in the fridge. Follow me on Google+, Facebook or visit my wedding photography website to see some of my work.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Tina

    Now this was totally cool! Thank you so much for sharing. Love it!

  2. 2
    ) Matt

    Great post! I’d seen the 1910 color photos before, but they never fail to stun. They are like photos a time traveler would have made! The 1940s photos look exactly like work Joe McNally would have made if he were around back then. Very, very cool!

  3. 3
    ) Ajay

    This is so unexpected. Who knew photos this old could look this awesome in color. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article Roman.

  4. 4
    ) Srini

    Wow…thanks for the nice article. I wonder what they would have achieved if they had access to these technologies! :-)

  5. 5
    ) Mark de Vrij

    These are beautiful. There is a collection from a Frenchman called Albert Kahn who sponsored & collected 10′s of thousands of colour photos from WWI to mid 1930′s which is really incredible, his vision was that by capturing images of people from around the world people would understand each other better and so war would become less likely.

    He sponsored several people to go out to various parts of the world and capture images of all the different cultures and lands (what a job to have!) and I think he ended up with over 50,000 images, mostly in colour. There are some incredible images of amazing people, national dress etc and some very soboring pictures of WWI and lands and people scarred by the many (often forgotten) smaller conflicts that led up to the tragic events of 1914 to 1918.

    Imagine how many images he would have if his photographers had had digital cameras!

    Thanks again for sharing these!
    Mark.

    • Interesting, Mark, it is indeed a hell of a job to have, even today!

  6. 6
    ) yogesh

    Thankyou so much roman for coming up with totally a unique article. Phtographs are 21st century style. I like all the pictures u have uploaded.
    I mean these photographers are technically sound and use of light is kaabil-e-tariff (nasim can tell u the meaning of it unless u guessed it right:-)
    Thankyou once again for a great article.
    yogesh

    • lol
      Thank you, Yogesh, again. I’ll have Nasim translate me that ;)

  7. Roman,
    I love old, high quality color photos. I have a theory that they can change our perception of history, for when we see others in such realistic settings, we realize that we may not be so different than those that came before us. Thanks for posting.
    Bob

    • That’s exactly the effect these had on me the first time I saw them, and so you are right.

      On the other hand, I’m an artist, and while I find these very interesting in historical context, I want my memories, romantically, to be in black & white. ;)

  8. Excellent Read Roman. Those images are just amazing.

    • Thank you for visiting again, Muddasir! They are, they really are :)

  9. 17
    ) Michael Baker

    Check out some of the stunning quality color photos made
    by the Lumiere brothers Autochrome process as far back
    as 1907:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auguste_and_Louis_Lumi%C3%A8re

    Also note that the first color photos were made WELL BEFORE
    1900 and some few still survive.

    • It would be quite interesting to try out the old techniques, don’t you think? :)

  10. 18
    ) Mohan

    wow ,, really amazing pictures

  11. 19
    ) Levon

    Very nice article and phenomenal photographs! Thank you Roman!
    “Armenian Woman” just stunned me. I’ve seen some pictures like this in my grandfather’s album, people in national dresses from Artvin (in present day Turkey), but they were black & white. And I also agree with Mark de Vrij about WWI.

    BTW Roman, perhaps nowadays “made in China” means poor quality, but that sword of Emir in 1910 might be one of the bests and made in China at the same time :)

    • Thank you, Levon!

      Actually, nowadays “made in China” often doesn’t mean poor quality, I think. I don’t think it’s any different if a Chinese person is pushing the buttons and not a Japanese one. :)

  12. 20
    ) yu

    thanks a lot for sharing this amazing photo, love all your articles. :)

  13. 21
    ) Ilias Trou

    Amazing ! Thanks for sharing with us.

  14. 22
    ) Doug

    Thanks for sharing! I really enjoyed these images. The quality is remarkable. I assume that he figured out the capturing part with filters, but didn’t have any good printing technique?

  15. 23
    ) Patrick Sullivan

    Sergey’s photographs are so clear and crisp compared to other color photographs of the time, even compared to modern films. I read about the exposing and developing process he went through to produce these, it is amazing he ever got accurate and sharp photos.

    • A lot of work was put in there. In the first photograph you can see by the water that the exposure was quite long, too. :)

  16. 24
    ) Marco

    Photography is important. How nice to be reminded of that fact.

  17. 25
    ) John

    These photos are fabulous! The colours are great and the lighting is excellent (especially in the photo where three women are working in the tunnel like place).

    Excellent article Roman!

    • Yes, the light is very nicely set-up :)

      The tunnel-like place is the inside of a bomber plane!

  18. I hope I look as good at 100!
    In fact, I hope my 100th photo looks as good too!
    A brilliant post. I’m as amazed as you are. cheers.

    Robert

  19. 37
    ) Sayed Mohamed

    Realy stunning.. the colors and tones in these old pictures are atleast as good as in present era. I like the color of ‘Emir of Bukhara’, and ‘Armenian Women’. Army photos are very well exposed too. Roman; do you know the exposures of above photographs? However, you’ve done a great experimentation.

    • Thank you, Sayed. No, unfortunately I do not know any exposure settings of the above photographs :)

  20. 38
    ) MokoChan

    Awesome picture, very nice article. Vintage FTW

  21. 40
    ) Sailfree

    Excellent collection. Many of us have inherited or otherwise obtained old prints from that era. What is the best technique/equipment to digitize the prints? My home scanner is not adequate.

  22. Really interesting to see these in colour – great photos.

  23. 42
    ) Jorge Balarin

    I saw the russian photos some time ago, and it is true, it’s difficult to imagine in colour the times of only black and white photography. It cost us to realize that in the same beaches where today girls take sun wearing tangas, our grand-grandmothers were displaying older fashion. The natural stage is more or less the same, but the decoration, the style of the buildings, the clothing and manners of the people, give a different atmosphere to our world, that is always the same, but different every time.

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