Helen Messinger Murdoch, W. H. and Acacia Decoration, c. 1915, autochrome, V&A, RPS.1351-2020

An introduction to the history and materiality of autochromes  

 

A plain, black piece of glass. That is what an autochrome looks like when not illuminated. But place light behind the glass, and wonderful, painterly, vivid images come to life.

The autochrome was the first widely accessible colour photography process, released commercially in 1907. We often think of colour photography as a broadly contemporary phenomenon; but colour photography processes were being developed before the official announcement of photography in 1839. While colour processes were invented before the autochrome, many of these were complicated and inaccessible or produced faulty colours, thus lacking commercial appeal. 

Autochromes, in contrast, were advertised as remarkably simple, requiring no specialist equipment or knowledge to render ‘perfect’ colours.[1] The autochrome was invented by the French Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, perhaps best known for developing the Cinématographe, an early form of motion pictures, with the first screening in 1895. Their inventions included forays into medicine and science, alongside their development and production of photographic materials at the Lumière factory in Lyon, France. These materials were initially monochrome gelatin dry plates, but from 1907, autochromes went into mass production at their factory. 

But where did the colour come from?

Potatoes. After running various experiments, this was the medium selected by Louis Lumière to carry the dyes which facilitate the production of colour in autochromes. An autochrome consists of a glass plate, on top of which sits thousands upon thousands of minuscule potato starch granules dyed red, green and blue. This acts as a colour filter. On top of this sits a panchromatic gelatin silver emulsion sensitive to all spectrum colours. When taking a photograph, coloured light bounces off the scene into the camera lens, hitting the coloured granules in the colour filter. Only the silver behind the affected coloured granules is exposed. The result is a colour image of the scene with the colours reversed. A positive colour image is produced by bleaching away the exposed silver and re-exposing the plate in daylight. To protect the developed image, a layer of cover glass, was bound to the plate with tape. 

F A Paneth, An enlargement of the colour screen of an autochrome plate, 19 December 1912, autochrome, V&A, RPS.1464-2020

It does sound complicated. But at the time, the autochrome was hailed as a revolution for its simplicity and ease of production. Colour photography was now widely accessible to those with the financial means to purchase autochrome plates. Developments in autochromes were closely followed by the press, both in Australia and abroad. An article in the Kalgoorlie Miner dated September 1907 declared, ‘[t]he process is an entire revolution in colour photography’.[2] Similarly, a later article dated May 1908 in the Australian Town and Country Journal commented, ‘we undoubtedly have a revolution in photography…[t]he process is extremely simple, and the very beautiful results are certain’. The article’s author admits, however, ‘but for the high price of the plates, the process would, no doubt, be very popular’.[3] Prices for autochrome plates were high, at least four times the price of monochrome plates. For this reason, most practicing ‘autochromists’ either had significant financial means or were working on commission, with their supplies provided. The steep price was just one issue associated with autochromes. 

This included slow exposures. Usually, exposures lasted between a few seconds to a minute, but in dark conditions it could take up to an hour to produce an exposure with an autochrome. This was in the time of ‘instant’ photography; with the invention of Kodak’s ‘snapshot’ No.1 camera in 1888, people were used to exposures lasting a mere fraction of a second. For this reason, many autochromes depict immobile subjects, from landscapes to still life studies. Gardens were particularly favoured for their combination of colourful specimens and an outdoor location featuring bright sunlight which reduced exposures. Wind posed a problem, and a 1915 article in the Australasian Photo-Review encouraged the construction of a glass chamber which could be placed over the flowers being photographed.[4] Other photographers controlled conditions by bringing the flowers inside. This is shown by numerous autochromes depicting flower arrangements placed beside windows to capture the light. Of course, colour portraits were desired, and articles in the photographic press describe various means to capture a sharp portrait, including the use of magnesium flash, outdoor studios and supports, like chairs, to steady subjects. Such methods are reminiscent of the early years of photography. 

Baron Adolphe de Meyer, Flower Study, 1909, autochrome, V&A, RPS.564-2020

John Cimon Warburg, ‘Daydreams’, c.1909, autochrome, V&A, RPS.1278-202

Means of display posed another issue. Autochromes can only be properly viewed when illuminated from behind. Displaying autochromes was therefore limited to placing them against windows, viewing through specialist equipment like diascopes, or backlighting through lamps or projection. However, in an ironic twist, autochromes are incredibly light-sensitive. The dyes are fugitive, with a tendency to fade. At the time, photographic publications offered advice regarding autochromes’ fading or ‘tanning’ because of over-exposure to light. Damage to autochromes was, and remains, a significant issue as each work is unique. You have to be extremely careful to not over-expose since the negative in autochromes is also the positive. Therefore, no other exists.

F. A. Paneth, Königsberg, c. 1928, autochrome, V&A, RPS.1545-2020. 

The light sensitivity of autochromes was a consideration in my recent work with the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) autochrome collection. The collection is internationally significant, comprising over 2,500 works by among the most notable artists and amateur photographers practicing ‘autochromy’ in the period, including Baron Adolph de Meyer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Helen Messinger Murdoch, John Cimon Warburg and F A Paneth. 

Researching the collection obviously involved viewing the collection in light, and in collaboration with my colleague Stephanie Jamieson, conservator at the V&A, we developed specific guidelines. Viewing could only take place in a dark room, on a lightbox set to a low light level. On placing the autochrome on the lightbox, viewing was restricted to under one minute. Such dark and fleeting conditions necessitated digitisation to enable further research and wider access. Over 1,000 autochromes were digitised as part of my research project.[5]

In photographing and reproducing the autochromes, we wanted to bring attention to their unique materiality. Autochromes are often reproduced purely as images, lacking context. But they are objects, with a strong physical and material presence. Where possible, the autochromes were photographed in their entirety, giving a sense of depth and showing the black tape, stickers, labels, writing and even damage – telling signs of how the autochrome was used in its past life.

 

Images: The Royal Photographic Society Collection / V&A Museum, London; The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A, acquired with the generous assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Art Fund.

References

1. ‘Colour Photography’, Kalgoorlie Miner, 12 September 1907, p. 3
2. Ibid
3. Natural Colour Photography: The Autochrome Process’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 27 May 1908, p. 35
4. H. Essenhigh Corke, ‘Wild Flower Photography’, Australasian Photo-Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 15 February 1915, p. 21.
5. These can be accessed on the V&A’s ‘Explore the Collection

 

About the author

Catlin Langford is Curator of Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She has previously held positions at the Royal Collection Trust, Guildhall School, Royal College of Art and Courtauld Institute. Her upcoming publication Colour Mania: Photographing the World in Autochrome (V&A/Thames & Hudson) will be released later this year. Her research looks at early colour photography, vernacular photography and women photographers, and the intersections between these. https://catlinlangford.com/

Photographers/Artists

Helen Messinger Murdoch
F A Paneth
Baron Adolphe de Meyer
John Cimon Warburg

bg-ctap-mobile bg-ctap-desktop

Become part of the festival

Head On Photo Festival is an inclusive arts festival for all ages and requires your support.

© Tim Smith (detail)