James_Clerk_MaxwellIn honor of Tartan Day, I want to talk about the first color photograph!

The first color photograph was hypothesized by James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish physicist, and was taken by Thomas Sutton, an English photographer who invented the Single Lens Reflex camera.

Maxwell first proposed the idea in 1855, when he was researching color vision. When he discovered that of all the cones in our eyes, some are more sensitive to red, some to green and some to blue, he decided to explore the idea of applying that to photography. He imagined that these three colors could be combined to create all other colors, and so began to explore the idea.

projection-maxwellMaxwell and Sutton finally captured the first color image in 1861, by taking three separate exposures of a tartan ribbon each through a different colored filter. They then combined the three images as slides on May 17, 1861 at the Royal Institution.

Even though the first demonstration of the image was not a great success, Maxwell’s idea is the basis of all of our color imagery and knowledge today.

I personally really appreciate that Maxwell even took the time to think about photography and how to represent color in film because he was a physicist! He isn’t even well known for his work in photography, he is best known for formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation.

I suppose it is simply fascinating that a man who made such notable contributions to the world of physics and who is remembered to be as important to science as Newton and Einstein was able to turn his mind to the humble world of photography. At that time, photojournalism was not even a profession yet, and people couldn’t even smile in photos yet!

It is wonderful that we have color photography. And even though someone else would have discovered it if Maxwell hadn’t, I’m glad it was a Scotsman who used his tartan ribbon to show how color works together in a single image. So, Tapadh leat James Clerk Maxwell!