World’s First Colour Photograph
In a continuation of my world’s first photograph series, reproduced above is one of the world’s first known colour photographs. It is titled “Landscape in Southern France” and is a photograph of Agen and the St. Caprais Cathedral. It was taken in 1877 by Louis Ducos du Hauron (1837-1920,) one of the pioneers of colour photography and colour printing. And a pioneer he was, it wouldn’t be until 30 years later that colour photography became practical. The above isn’t even strictly a photograph, it was a combination of three different photographic plates that were inked and printed onto the same piece of paper. And that’s about all I can find out on the web, it’s becoming clear just how limited the web is as any sort of serious reference. However, I digress.
So where the hell is Agen, France? It’s a town of 30,000 in Aquitaine, in south-central France. Agen was founded in the fourth century. It spent the next five centuries being raided, first by Germanic tribes from the East, then by Arabs from Spain, lastly by Norse invaders sailing up the river from the coast. So Agen didn’t grow much until after the ninth century, in fact one wonders why they stayed. Then they got smart and built the town’s main buildings on a handful of little fortified hills. Why it took five centuries of raiders before they took defencive measures isn’t clear to me, maybe they are just a stubborn unimaginative lot. And from the 9th to the 13th century Agen was peaceful and prosperous.
Then came the Hundred Years’ War in 1324, and Agen spent the next hundred years being fought over by France and England, and being periodically raided by mercenary robber armies all the while. In 1453 Agen became French once and for all, just in time for the Renaissance. So instead of French and English fighting, Agen became the scene of fights between Protestant and Catholic armies until 1598. And again, peace arrived just in time for a century of floods, famine, economic collapse, and brain drain. Dear God, I’m not making this up, how this town is even still around is amazing. In the late 1700s things finally improved, in fact Agen prospered as the middle class grew in wealth and power throughout France. Yes, the late eighteenth century was a Golden Age for Agen!
And that’s that, since then Agen has slowly and steadily declined as a centre of agriculture and industry, not even getting a modern bank until the late 19th century. How does one spell “backwater” in French? In other words, Agen probably looks about the same today as it did when the above image was taken, it’s not exactly a booming region. In fact it’s known as the “prune capital” of France, having a prune festival every fall where candied and liqueured prunes are sold and celebrated. Hey, I like prunes, I’d attend. Still, not really what one would describe as a world class event. And that’s about it for Agen’s history. The cathedral in the image has been there since the 12th century. Agen is also the site of the long forgotten Agen meteorite fall of 1814.
Still, as always with old photographs, I’m fascinated by this picture. While Agen looks idyllic and peaceful, this was an interesting time in France. In 1870-1871 France had fought a war with Germany, and lost badly. The emperor Napoleon III and the entire French army being captured at the disastrous Battle of Sedan, followed by a four month bloody siege of Paris. The French government fell, and there was an “abortive workers revolution” in Paris. The Paris Commune as it was called was soon crushed by the French army, some 30,000 to 50,000 people being killed, most of them extra-judicially. Still, while France was going through crisis, the Germans didn’t reach Agen.
So this is a photo of a tranquil town in a troubled time. And we still have some connection to it. People born in 1867 or so saw the above scene during their lifetimes. Some of them lived to the 1940s at least. So there are people alive today who knew someone who saw the above scene with their own eyes. And because of the wonder of photography, their memories can be seen today, even if the eyes that saw them are long gone. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law, as it was produced before 1923. True, some may claim that the image of the “Tartan Ribbon” made in 1861 is the world’s first colour photo. No, not quite. It was three different photographs taken through different colour filters, when the glass photographic plates were combined and a light shone through them, a colored image was indeed projected onto the wall. However, it wasn’t till decades later that people learnt how to combine different images into one image … like our image above. Maybe I’m quibbling over details, but it is certain that the above image is the oldest surviving colour photographic image of a real world scene, not just a laboratory image of a ribbon. Coming soon, more early photography. Yes, we are moving into an era where the earliest photos were from two centuries ago!)