A colour photography pioneer comes to light thanks to the synchrotron


The colour prints of Louis Ducos du Hauron, an unknown pioneer of colour photography, have been put under the infrared and X-rays at the ESRF, the European Synchrotron (Grenoble, France) to better understand the methods he used. A team of researchers and curators from the ESRF, CNRS , C2RMF , Musée d’Orsay, École nationale supérieure Louis Lumière, the faculty of Science and Engineering of the Sorbonne University, the Chimie Paris Tech and a private photography conservator and curator has published the results of this study in Angewandte Chemie.

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Who invented colour photography? To this question, most people would reply “the brothers Lumière”. Their procedure “autochrome” is recorded into posterity because the brothers commercialised it with success. However, a photography pioneer has been kept in the shadow: Louis Ducos du Hauron. This is despite the fact that he patented an animated image-processing method in 1864, the same year that Louis Lumière was born. He was the first one to produce three-color prints using three negatives printed into three colour positives (one red, one yellow and one blue), in a similar manner to how printers today function.

As if he were a cook, Ducos du Hauron spent his life creating “recipes” – procedures based on scientific experimentation- to achieve a faithful reconstruction of reality through colour photographs. He photographed each scene through green, orange, and violet filters, then printed his three negatives on three thin films of dichromate gelatin containing red, blue, and yellow pigments, the complementary colours of the filters used for the negatives. When the three positives were superimposed, a full-colour photograph resulted.

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"Vase with begonia, tulip and glass of wine", "heliochromie" made by Louis Ducos du Hauron in 1879. Copyright: Agen museum.

A collaboration was initiated by the Musée d’Orsay with the Centre de recherche de restauration des musées de France and the École Nationale Superieure Louis-Lumière to unravel Ducos du Hauron’s methods, as well as to find the best conservation techniques to preserve his art. In order to unite all of Ducos du Hauron’s work, this collaboration extended to the workshop Francoise Ploye Conservation Restauration, the museums of Agen and Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône and the Academy of Sciences. A total of 27 photographs were carried out using non-invasive methods to determine the techniques and components. Three photographs (one from the museum Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône, two others from the museum of Agen) included fragments that could be extracted for complementary studies in microscopy. 

The C2RMF entrusted the tiny samples to the ESRF. All the fragments provided details on the composition of the photographs with exceptional accuracy. In parallel, and to better understand the results of chemical analyses, the team reviewed the multiple letters, books and patents written by Ducos and his brother. “We were fortunate that Ducos had extensively detailed his work and reflections in his literature, and this has proved to be a mine of information to understand his processes”, explains Tiphaine Fabris, a scientist who participated in the study at the ESRF.


General principle of three-color carbon printing developed by Ducos du Hauron. Copyright: ESRF.

Thanks to the experiments at the ESRF, the team could identify and localise various ingredients used, such as pigments, dichromate gelatin, collodion or resin. “Our results can clearly show that Ducos du Hauron used different recipes in the prints studied. In two cases, we have an excellent agreement between a process published in 1878 and the chemical composition of fragments. It also paves the way to a larger application of synchrotron-based micro-analyses to study other early carbon-print photographs”, explains Marine Cotte, scientist in charge of the ESRF microscopy beamline and corresponding author of the article.

Ducos du Hauron was a humble and disinterested inventor and would sometimes abandon patents of his recipes to the public domain. He also wrote several books where he specified the multiple recipes he followed to achieve a final colour print. “It was clear that he was doing it for the benefit of mankind, not for his own benefit. Unfortunately his methods were way too complicated to go into the mainstream”, explains Marine Cotte.

However, his work inspired the brothers Lumière, who achieved the first commercial colour photography methods with their “autochrome”. “Beyond the scientific results, our study wants to be a fair and well-deserved recognition of the work done by a genius, someone who died poor before he could see the fruits of his life-long research”, concludes Marine Cotte.

The work of this multidisciplinary team continues with the aim to characterise and establish a “status report” of each of Ducos du Hauron’s work kept in the French public collections. Material knowledge of these very fragile and largely unknown, major pieces for the history of photography should enable to better preserve them and to present them to the public in their original form in the years to come. 

Cotte, M. et al, Angewandte Chemie, 20th March 2018. https://doi.org/10.1002/anie.201712617


CNRS: Laboratoire d'archéologie moléculaire et structurale (LAMS, CNRS/Sorbonne Université), De la molécule aux nano-objets: réactivité, interactions et spectroscopies (MONARIS, CNRS/Sorbonne Université) and Institut de recherche de chimie Paris (IRCP, CNRS/Chimie Paris Tech)

C2RMF: Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France (C2RMF)

Top image: Louis Ducos du Hauron, photographed in autochrome in 1910 by the Lumière brothers. The "Autochrome" process of the Lumière brothers is inspired by one of the different photography methods patented by Louis Ducos du Hauron in 1868. Copyright BNF