Gabriel Lipmann and the Colour Photography

Gabriel Lippmann

Gabriel Lippmann

On August 16, 1845, Franco-Luxembourgish physicist and Nobel Laureate Gabriel Lippmann was born. He is best known for for his method of reproducing colors photographically based on the phenomenon of interference.

Gabriel Lippmann was educated at the Lycée Napoleon and later he was admitted to the École Normale. In 1873, Lippmann was appointed to a government scientific mission visiting Heidelberg and Berlin, Germany to study methods for teaching science. There, he worked with Kühne and Kirchhoff. Lipmann was appointed Professor of Mathematical Physics at the Faculty of Science in Paris in the 1880s and later became Professor of Experimental Physics.

During his scientific career, Lipmann made numerous contributions to the fields of electricity, thermodynamics, optics and photochemistry. His studies of the relationship between electrical and capillary phenomena led to the development of his capillary electrometer.

In the field of photography, Lippmann already had his general theory of his process for the photographic reproduction of color evolved by 1886. However, turning his theory into a practical execution caused a few difficulties. Color photography was probably first attempted in the 1840s and early pioneers include the American Daguerreotypist Levi Hill who created the quite complicated “Hillotype” process. Back then, the images required exposure times of several hours or sometimes the colors quickly began fading when the images were exposed to light for viewing, as it happened with the experiments by Edmond Becquerel. Lippmann’s interest to creating a method of fixing the colors of the solar spectrum on a photographic plate evolved in the 1880s. In 1891, he finally announced to the Academy of Sciences: “I have succeeded in obtaining the image of the spectrum with its colors on a photographic plate whereby the image remains fixed and can remain in daylight without deterioration.” By April 1892, Lippmann reported to have produced color images of a stained glass window, a group of flags, a bowl of oranges topped by a red poppy and a multicolored parrot and presented his theory of color photography using the interference method in two papers to the Academy of Sciences, one in 1894, the other in 1906.

A colour photograph made by Lippmann in the 1890s

A colour photograph made by Gabriel Lippmann in the 1890s

Gabriel Lippmann’s method for the diffractive manifestation of color were mixed with Nobel Laureate Dennis Gabor’s technique. The physics behind both methods can be understood on the same principle, as the wave nature of light is used which involves encoding the image field by interference, recording the structure in a photographic plate, and then reading out the image field again by sending light and getting it modulated in this structure. However, the result was different. While Gabriel Lippmann’s focus was to improve photography from black and white to color, Gabor’s holography extended photography from flat pictures to a three-dimensional image space.

For their contributions, both, Dennis Gabor and Gabriel Lippmann were honored with the Nobel Prizes in Physics. Unfortunately, despite being highly innovative, Lippmann’s technique still did not overcome the handicap of high-resolution plates requiring exposure times from minutes to hours. Still, his abilty of taking photographs in natural colors stimulated and inspired future physicists and photographers. For example, the Lumière brothers developed a process based on transparent filters in three colors. This ‘autochromemethod prevailed into the 1930s until being replaced by present color photography technologies.

At yovisto, you can learn more about ‘Photography and the Art of Doing it Wrong‘ by Audrey Penven.

References and Further Reading:

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