Monday, April 4, 2016


Many are familiar with the history of the Leica and its influence on photography in general.  The photographic process Leica relied on essentially was no different from what we are using today.  Many of the early Leica photographs are well known.  Quite a few were taken by Oskar Barnack, the inventor of the Leica, himself.

Wetzlar Eisenmarkt
Photo: Oskar Barnack

All of these photographs are in black and white, which brings up the question of color.  Were there any color films in these early days of 35mm photography?  For an answer we need to go back to virtually the beginning of photography in general.

The earliest permanent photograph in existence was made in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niepce, showing the roofs and chimneys visible from his workroom.  It required an exposure time of eight hours on a bright, sunny day.  He used a pewter plate with a light sensitive varnish of asphalt (bitumen if Judea) and then used oils as a fixing agent.  During the exposure, various areas of the asphalt would harden to different degrees.  The oils washed away the less hardened areas of the asphalt, resulting in a recognizable image.  The word snapshot doesn’t apply.

Joseph Nicéphore Niepce photograph from 1826

Niepce’s process proved to be a dead end.  Through the company of Chevalier, the major manufacturer of lenses at the time, he met Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre.  They formed a company to research other means to take permanent photographs.  Unfortunately, Niepce died before they had any success.  A nephew of his continued to work with Daguerre, but when a viable process was developed, Daguerre took the credit all for himself.  This was the famous Daguerreotype, first introduced in 1839 to the French Académie des Sciences.  While a lot faster than Niepce’s first attempts, it still had the drawback of producing just a single picture at the time.  There were no negatives from which multiple copies could be made.

"Boulevard du Temple", taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris, includes the earliest known candid photograph of a
person. The image shows a street, but because of the over ten-minute exposure time the moving traffic does not
appear. At the lower left, however, a man having his boots polished had both men motionless enough
for their images to be captured.

The first successful negative process was developed by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1840.  He used sensitized strips of paper, which, when developed, resulted in a negative which allowed the contact printing of multiple images.  Thus the photographic process closest to what we use today, was born.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Laycock Abbey 1847

Virtually as soon as these processes became available, the quest for color photographs started.  The earliest color photographs were actually hand colored daguerreotypes.  Simultaneously, a number individuals experimented with a variety of processes to produce color images.  Some were met with limited success while others could not be repeated with any certainty.

The three color process of red-green-blue, RGB was first used by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861. His picture “Tartan Ribbon” is generally considered the first durable color photograph, and the very first made by the three-color method Maxwell first suggested in 1855. Maxwell had the photographer Thomas Sutton photograph a tartan ribbon three times, each time with a different color filter (red, green, and blue-violet) over the lens. The three photographs were developed, printed on glass, and then projected onto a screen with three different projectors, each equipped with the same color filter used to photograph it. When superimposed on the screen, the three images formed a full-color image. Maxwell's three-color approach underlies nearly all forms of color photography, whether film-based, analogue video, or digital.

James Clerk Maxwell, "Tartan Ribbon" 1861

The credit for a valid color process goes to John Joly.  He was aware that a color image could be formed by mixing just three colors, red, green and blue, a process still used today in all types of color imaging.  He used a glass plate which contained a ruling of alternating RGB filters, about 200 per inch.  This was placed against the glass negative plate in the camera during exposure.  After developing, the same glass plate was put in register with the negative, resulting in a color transparency which could even be projected.

John Joly "Butterflies" 1893

The process worked, but was relatively cumbersome.  Obviously, it would be a lot easier to do away with the RGB plate and combine the RGB filters with the emulsion.  Such a process was developed by the Lumière brothers.  They patented their Autochrome process in 1903 and began marketing it in 1907.

Just like Joly’s process, Autochrome is an additive color process. The medium consists of a glass plate coated on one side with a random mosaic of microscopic grains of potato starch dyed red-orange, green, and blue-violet (an unusual but functional variant of the standard RGB additive colors) which act as color filters. Carbon particles fill the spaces between grains, and a black-and-white panchromatic silver halide emulsion is coated on top of the filter layer.  The glass plates were loaded with the filter layer facing the lens.  After developing, a color transparency was the result.  Autochrome was one of the most widely used color photography process in use before the advent of subtractive color film in the mid-1930s.

RGB colored starch particles function as a filter


 Autochrome Photographs by Lumiere brothers

A similar process was developed by Agfa in the 1920s.  Instead of the dyed starch particles, they developed a very fine RGB screen with also was attached to the glass plate.  It too produced color transparencies.  In 1932 Agfa was the first company to offer a film-based version of their Agfa-Farbenplatte (Agfa color plate), enabling Leica owners for the first time to take color photographs.


But there were still drawbacks.  The Autochrome and Agfa systems were notoriously slow.  The RGB filters absorbed a huge amount of light.  Another process was needed to solve that problem.

In 1912 Rudolph Fisher at Agfa discovered chemicals would react to the silver halides in the emulsion and convert other compounds into insoluble dyes.  These color forming ingredients, called dye couplers, could be included in the emulsion.  Fisher’s work resulted in researching three emulsion layers in films to form a color image.  Initial trials were unsuccessful because some of the color dyes migrated from one emulsion layer to the other during development.

This was also the case with Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, who worked at the Kodak laboratories in Rochester, New York.  To solve the problem, they switched to incorporating the dyes in the developer.  This resulted in a breakthrough, and in 1935 the first three emulsion layer color film became reality, the Kodachrome.  Because the dye couplers of this film were added during the developing stage, tghis was a very complicated process and it was necessary to send the film to Kodak to have it processed.

The original 18 exposure 35mm Kodachrome

The first color film to incorporate the dye couplers in the emulsion was the Agfacolor Neu (new) in 1936.  It was the first time that photographers were able develop their own color film.  The Neu designation was used to distinguish these Agfacolor films from their previous Agfacolor films.  Both Kodachrome and Agfacolor very quickly spelled the end of Autochrome and other, similar films.


Both Kodachrome and Agfacolor were available as 35mm films giving Leica owners and owners of other 35mm cameras for the first time a convenient and reliable means to take color photographs.  It is interesting to note that both companies initially marketed their films with the reference to Leica and other 35mm cameras.  Thus we have a further indication how important the Leica was in creating photography as we know it today.


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  1. Do you have any idea how Agfa finally solved the problem of color coupler migration to the other emulsion layers? I understand Kodaks solution with the Kodachrome, but that turned out to be somewhat of a hassle since it required for the film to be sent to a processing lab.

    1. I agree that Kodachrome was a bit of a hassle to get processed. That obviously is the very reason why all the other Kodak transparency films later on used essentially the same process as initially developed by Agfa.
      I am not a chemist, but as I understand it, Agfa's solution was in a way ingeniously simple. The emulsion structure of film at that time was relatively coarse as far as the silver halides are concerned. To prevent color coupler migration, they simply made the resulting color couplers large enough that they could not pass the general structure of the emulsion. With other words, the color couplers got stuck in their respective emulsion layers.