There were several million black-and-white photographs taken of the World War I–you’ve probably seen them in history textbooks or museums. But many don’t know that World War I was the first major conflict to be documented in the then-new medium of color photography–about 4,500 full-color images were taken by pioneering war photographers experimenting with autochrome technology. It had been in development for half a century.
The First World War in Color, a new book, compiles 320 of these rare images, many in print for the first time. For modern readers accustomed to seeing the early 20th century in shades of gray, these images amplify perceptions of the horrors that began a century ago this year. Color–whether it’s the bright red of the French Zouave units’ uniforms (which made them easy targets for German machine-gun fire), or the yellow of a downed French airship–makes the catastrophe seem more painfully real. “The people in the photographs no longer look like they’re from another age, they look contemporary,” editor Peter Walther tells Co.Design. “It surprises readers, because our visual memories have been trained to think of the early 20th century as a black-and-white era.”
In color, the beauty of the European landscapes–red poppy fields in Champagne, snowy mountains on the Western Front, yellow flowers at the Battle of Marne–contrasts more starkly with the devastation of the “war to end war.” As French writer Romain Rolland wrote in his diary in July, 1914, “The air is sweet, the scent of wisteria floats in the night; and the stars sparkle in such perfect brilliance! In this divine tranquility and tender beauty the nations of Europe begin the great slaughter.”
Walther collected most of the photos in the book from archives in France, and chose the best work by pioneers in the medium, including Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville, Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, Léon Gimpel, Hans Hildenbrand, Frank Hurley, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud, and Charles C. Zoller.
They all used the Autochrome Lumiere photography process, patented in 1903 by the Lumiere brothers of France. Autochromes are transparent images on glass, similar to slides, and had to be either projected or held up to a light to be viewed. Since autochromes required a long exposure time, there aren’t many color images of front-line action–instead, they’re carefully composed group portraits of soldiers preparing for battle or haunting stills of villages reduced to rubble, destroyed churches, and overcrowded hospitals. One of the images Walther was most struck by shows a Christmas tree brightly decorated with miniature flags from nations all over the world, taken in 1911 in Nikolskoye, Russia. Says Walther: “The tree symbolized the hope of peace.”
The First World War in Color is available from Taschen for $59.99 here.