I’ve been trying to hunt down some firsts for cars in various artistic media — first painting of a car, first photo, and so on. I haven’t had much luck so far, but I do think I have the answer to at least one subset: I think this is the first color photograph of a car.
The photograph, titled During the Race, was taken in 1906 and of a girl in a 1902 Renault. It has a very, very good claim on the title of First Color Photo of a Car. To explain why, we need to talk about just how color photos were taken all the way back in 1906.
The first commercial method for taking color photographs is known as Autochrome Lumière. You may recognize the name Lumiére as the brothers who were early motion-picture pioneers. Even though they had one of the earliest viable motion picture cameras, they sort of misjudged this whole “movies” thing, saying
“the cinema is an invention without any future.”
Their abandonment of cinema led them to their experiments with color photography, which culminated in their development of the Autochrome system.
The system used, of all things, a plate coated with a randomized array of potato starch particles, each particle dyed one of three colors: red-orange, green, blue-violet. Those are close enough to the red/yellow/blue (or cyan/magenta/yelllow) colors used for additive color printing.
The potato starch color filter would be coated on a glass plate, which would act as a filter for the more conventional silver halide plate behind it. The final positive image was developed so that the filter plate always remained aligned with the light and dark plate, with each particle acting as a micro-color filter for the tiny patch of luminance behind it. Get it? Read this, it’ll explain it all.
The process was patented in 1903, and first made it to market in 1907. It was the primary way to take color photographs until the mid 1930s.
So, back to our car photo. Remember, it was taken in 1906, a year before the Autochrome process was on the market? How can that be? The answer becomes clear when you realize just who that picture is of.
The girl in the car is Suzanne Lumière, the daughter of Louis Lumière. That Renault is Louis’ own car — all 8 HP of it. There was literally no other car owner on earth alive at that time who was capable of taking a color photograph of their car at all.
I’ve seen this 1907 color photo of a Peugeot claimed to be the first color photo of a car, but, as you can see, it’s a year younger, dating from the first year Autochrome film plates were commercially available. So, while this is undoubtedly one of the very first color photographs of a car, it’s clearly not the first.
What’s even better about the Lumière photo is that it’s also the first color photo of a parking lot (even a temporary one on grass) and as such it’s a photograph of at least six cars, which is six times better than one car. It’s also great to see that kids have been goofing around at the wheel of their parent’s cars for well over a century, too.
I suppose it’s possible Louis Lumière took a color photo of a car prior to this one, but until that surfaces, I feel pretty comfortable calling this charming little girl in her equally charming Renault the first color car photo ever.
Countach poster I had in my childhood bedroom, meet your ancestor.
(Thanks, Ted! First color car photo is from the collection of Mark Jacobs.)