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The first World War, in color

Because of black-and-white photos and grainy newsreels, we tend to remember World War I predominantly in monochrome — uniforms of dull khaki and field gray set against mud-filled trenches, churned earth and blasted craters.

Yet surprisingly, World War I was the first major conflict to be covered by color photography. A new book, “The First World War in Colour by Peter Walther, draws from international archives to show a rare and almost unknown cache of color autochrome photographs from what is sometimes described as the “pre-color era.”

Color photography dates to the mid-19th century, but the technology lagged far behind its black-and-white counterpart as photographers struggled to find a process that was practical. By 1900, professional photographers were using three-color separation processes that were suited to book and magazine printing but too laborious for general use.

Then came the autochrome, patented in 1904 by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere. Colored starch grains scattered over a glass plate — creating a dot screen similar to digital pixels — were then varnished and sensitized, producing a unique positive transparency that, like slides, could be projected for viewing. This much simpler process appealed to amateurs and artists, not only because of its relative ease of use, but also for its soft impressionistic effect.

In the few intervening years leading up to the war, autochromes became a market success. Several ambitious expeditions to document the world in color were undertaken, most notably by Parisian banker Albert Khan and his team of photographers. Cut short by hostilities, these trained color specialists switched to documenting the war in France and North Africa, often at their own expense.

This partly explains why a large proportion of the book’s imagery is French. Kahn successfully petitioned France’s Ministry of War to use color in its official coverage. As a result, most of the surviving images are by photographers associated with his projects, including Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville and Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud.

Exotic colonial French uniforms, with their red-striped trousers, scarlet Zouave pantaloons and bright blue battle dress, were ideal subject matter until it was realized the uniforms made easy targets for German machine-gun fire and were replaced with khaki or navy blue. Today the uneven tones, with strong primary colors and washed-out backgrounds, could be mistaken for hand-colored black-and-white prints. However, this is authentic natural color rather than color added later from memory or imagination.

None of the images was shot in the heat of the battle. The kit of glass plates, wooden-box cameras and tripods was heavy to move and unwieldy to set up. More importantly, autochromes lacked the sensitivity of black-and-white film, meaning long exposure times of up to several seconds. This made action shots virtually impossible.

Scenes are heavily staged, showing troops posed in an imitation of camp life. There are also static subjects of captured tanks, crashed dirigibles and devastated landscapes.

Passes to the front lines were scarce. War offices on all sides were slow to realize the propaganda opportunities of photography, and the number of official photographers in each camp never rose above the teens. Hans Hildenbrand was the only one of the 19 official German photographers to shoot in color. He left a large archive of excellent autochromes documenting the Kaiser’s troops in Alsace and Champagne in France. After the war, Hildenbrand went on to work for National Geographic with his wartime French counterpart Jules Gervais-Courtellemont.

The plates were reproduced at the time as postcards. Although some grisly photographs of the dead and dying exist, generally the imagery was either comforting or propagandist, such as showing the normality of camp life or patriotic soldiers in uniform ready for action. What little censorship existed was never heavily enforced, and dramatic scenes of destruction were freely recorded by both sides, either as indictment against the German aggressor or evidence of German successes.

In all, the estimated 4,500 surviving color plates make up a tiny proportion of the war record. Fragile and difficult to view, they have been buried in public and private archives for 100 years, only now emerging to give us a tantalizing, colorful glimpse of life in the dark years of the Great War.

- Sarah McDonald, Special to CNN