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November 1, 2017

33 Rare Color Portrait Photos of French Soldiers in World War One

Photography is older than you might think and color photography, too, is a surprisingly early technology, having first been demonstrated in the 1860s. Still, many of us see the pre-baby-boomer world in black-and-white, which makes these photographs completely arresting: color pictures of the First World War, which began a century ago today with that infamous moment in Sarajevo. These are not hand-tinted black-and-white pictures like postcards of the era; they were shot that way, in the camera.

They were made with a technology called Autochrome, invented in 1903 by two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière. Their color system, first sold in 1907, was surprisingly refined for a first try. The photographic emulsion is overlaid with specks of potato starch, dyed red, green, and blue, and both were coated on a glass plate. Once developed, the photos are not printed; you view that glass plate on a lightbox, like a slide. The Autochrome system was not experimental but commercially available, and it was quite successful.

There are hundreds of Autochromes of the Great War, many of them preserved by the French national library. Most are still-lifes, of shelled buildings and the like, owing to simple technical reasons: Autochromes required a lot of light, so the exposures are slow, and people don’t hold still. But a few do include soldiers and villagers, and it’s almost shocking to see the French blue of the uniforms — not to mention their fastidious tailoring, which you would be unlikely to see in the field today. Without the distance of sepia tones, these faces — their mustaches aside — somehow seem far more modern. (There’s an extra layer of humanity in the 1917 photo below that shows black and white faces in one trench. The black soldier is likely from Senegal, then a French colony, and god only knows what he felt he was fighting for.) They faced the worst weapons of mass destruction that could be conjured at the time, in the form of mustard gas and machine guns. Every one of these pictures captures the best and worst of human invention: one technology used to maim, another meant simply to record history, beautifully.

Group of French servicemen, "Poilus", in front of the entrance of a cote. Woods of Hirtzbach. (Haut-Rhin. France. June 16th, 1917)

Mr. Jacques Regnier, sub-prefect of Rheims. (Rheims The Marne. France 1917)

Mailman making his rounds. (Rheims The Marne. France 1917)

Mr. Andrieu, sub-prefect of Soissons, on foot. Military costume. (Soissons. Aisne. France. 1917)

Bucy-le-Long, section of machine gunners, 4 soldiers in the ruins, drawing. (Aisne. France. 1917)

Time for a haircut. In a camp, a soldier cutting the hair of another soldier. (Aisne. France. 1917)

French soldier in World War I preparing his correspondence writing on a wooden case. (Soissons. Aisne. France. 1917)

The noncommissioned officers of the 370th having been subjected to the attack of July 8th on the way of the Ladies. (Village of Soissons. Aisne. France. 1917)

The monument of 1870 in Soissons with two soldiers in front. (Soissons. Aisne. France.1917)

Type of Indochinese (17 workers). (Soissons. Aisne. France. 1917)

Senegalese cook. (Soissons. Aisne. France. 1917)

The barber of the company. Military barber shaving the beard of a soldier in the street. (Soissons. Aisne. France. 1917)

A soldier gets water from the fountain. (Soissons. Aisne. France. 1917)

Bucy-le-Long, fruit trees sawed by Germans. Soldier leaning on elbows on the trunk of the tree among flowers. (Soissons. Aisne. France. 1917)

Mr Beauchamp, owner of the distillery in standing in military uniform. Behind him, the engine. (Soissons. Aisne. France. 1917)

Algerian sentry. (Soissons. Aisne. France. 1917)

Mailman. (Reims. Marl. France. April 5th, 1917)

At the fountain, the street Cères. Serviceman refreshing himself at a fountain. (Reims. Marl. France. April 4th, 1917)

Mailman, on rue de l'Isle, destruction and debris. (Rheims The Marne. France. April 5 1917)

Lookout in the post of the lock 26. French serviceman in observation. Eglingen. (Haut-Rhin. France. June 23rd, 1917)

A French serviceman of the 7th regiment of artillery or infantry. Ballersdorf. (Haut-Rhin. France. June 22nd, 1917)

Doing the washing, while another serviceman sits on a stony trough. Village of Gildwiller. (Haut-Rhin. France. June 21st, 1917)

Front line trench, observer. French serviceman. Working in the trenches. Wood of Hirtzbach. (Haut-Rhin. France. June 16th, 1917)

Commander of the frigate Maupeau, ordering the fusilliers-sailors. Drie-Gratchen. Belgium. September 3rd, 1917)

Aide-de-camp to General Michel. Furnes (Belgium September 4th, 1917)

Officer of French crew Feuillie. Drie-Grachten. (Belgium September 3, 1917)

Belgian policeman and help - French policeman. Woesten. (Belgium 25 aout 1917)

Belgian General Michel, commander of the 4th D.A. (the old minister of war)

Abbot Even, chaplain of the 51th division, in front of a car-ambulance. Boesinghe. (Belgium. September 10th, 1917)

Belgian State trooper and help - state trooper Frenchman. Woesten. (Belgium 25 End 1917)

French soldiers in front of a stall (or stand). Rexpoede. (France. September 6, 1917)

Australian soldiers in uniform. Bergues. (Northern France, September 2, 1917)

General Anthoine, First Army Commander. (Northern France, September 11, 1917)

(via NYMag)


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