Monday, 25 November 2013

Autrochromes: When Colour Photography Began

As is reasonably well known, the first colour photographic process was invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1903 and first marketed in 1907. Wikipedia provides a reasonable account of how the process works, and so I won't bother with a full technical description, but the one technical detail worth noting is that the glass plate upon which the image is produced is coated with dyed grains of potato starch that create a chromatic filter. Since the grains of starch typically varied in size, the resulting photograph have a slightly pointillist and rather impressionist visual quality. These features made them ideal for those photographers working under the sway of the 'pictorialist' aesthetic that continued to predominate for a few further years.

But what got me thinking about autochromes was the general question of how photographers handled the introduction of colour to their medium. If you work in a period of very rich grayscale or black and white - think of those gorgeous platinum prints! - it takes quite a leap of imagination to incorporate colour into your photographic practice. Colour film had been around quite long time when it began to be quite commonly used by artists in the 1970s, following Ernst Haas and William Eggleston, but there was a huge quantity of filmic imagery in colour that could provide material for reflection upon how to use colour, or better, what colour photography could or couldn't do better than grayscale. But in 1908, this was a new and cumbersome technology, and it isn't obvious what it would be most effective for. Imagine, for example that a 3D camera is invented; that is a camera that lets you print a an object or scene in all of its spatial dimensions - using I suppose a 3D printer. (Probably such a camera exists, but I think its fair to say that it is rarely if ever used to make works of art.) OK, you have the camera, you are an artist, what do you do with it? The first autochromes suggest that very often the first ideas are not the best.

For example, this is Alvin Coburn's surprisingly dull Autumn Landscape:


This is the ever innovative photographer who only a couple of years before produced striking images such as this of St. Paul's:


But it is as if given a colour process he was just stumped and couldn't think what to do but photograph a tree with colourful leaves. Along the same lines is this from George Bernhard Shaw (ok, not the most noted photographer of the age):


Yawn. A bit better is J. Craig Annan's portrait of the children's book illustrator Jessie M. King:


Great hat . . . no, altogether a great outfit. An interesting picture, but it could hardly be said to have made much use of the new colour process. The one exception I can think of (though there may be others) is Baron de Meyer. Here are two still lives that clearly manifest an interest in what colour photography might be:



Sensuous, rich and very colour aware. It was sixty some years later that William Eggleston began the turn to an art of colour photography, and from that point the slow demise of black and white began. Still, compare Eggleston's groundbreaking The Red Ceiling (1973) with the first of the de Meyer still lives above:

It must be something about red. Isn't it captivating?




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