On the Origin of colours of Edmond Becquerel’s photochromatic images: a spectroscopy and electron microscopy study - (2015-2018)

Subject and description

Funding : Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL)

PhD director : Bertrand Lavédrine, CRC

Supervisor : Marie-Angélique Languille, CRC


The first colour photographs were produced in 1848 by Edmond Becquerel at the Museum of natural History in Paris. The origin of their colours motivated an intense debate between the scientists during the XIXth century. Two main hypotheses were proposed, namely a pigmentary hypothesis and an interferential hypothesis. Nowadays the question of the colours of those photochromatic images is still not settled and this doctoral research aims at addressing it by an experimental approach. We first studied the sensitizing of the silver plate and the exposure of the sensitive surface to light in order to replicate the Becquerel process and to gain information on the photosensitivity of these images. The optical properties of the sensitized and coloured layers were characterized by UV-visible spectroscopy and related to their chemical composition (studied by XAS) and their morphologies, from the micro to the nanoscale (studied by SEM and TEM). A methodological development was necessary to understand and overcome the sensitivity of the samples to photonic beams (UV-visible and X-rays) and electronic beams. The results allow us to reject the interferential hypothesis, which prevailed since the end of the XIXth century. The sensitized and coloured layers consist in micrometric silver chloride grains decorated by silver nanoparticles. Besides, these nanoparticles, which we investigated by low loss EELS, are responsible for the visible absorption of sensitized and coloured layers through surface plasmon resonance. We suggest that the photochromatic images colours have a plasmonic origin and hereby discuss this hypothesis.