by Jim DaMico
The autochrome is the rarest, the most fragile and, to a great many eyes, the most beautiful of photographic processes. It represents not just the birth of color photography but color as luminous as the camera ever caught it[a].
One of the most unique items I have come across so far in my inventory project of the graphics collection here at the RIHS is that of an Autochrome which measures 4”W x 6”H. It is a ¾ length portrait of an unidentified woman taken around 1910-1920 by an unidentified photographer. This process, much like the daguerreotype, is a one of a kind photograph except that this is an example of the first commercially viable color photographic process.
Housed in the original, leather covered Diascope viewer which has stamped on the brass sides “B.J. Diascope Pat. Sept. 1, 1908. Mfd by L.A. Dubernet”, some of the hallmarks of Autochrome portraits of the time are present. The view includes a vase of white flowers on a table and trees bordering the sitter and looks like it was taken outside. Unfortunately the glass has a crack in it and there is deterioration, possibly delamination, caused by moisture, of the image layer in the shape of the woman. The B.J. Diascope was the most expensive viewer offered to customers indicating the image may have been taken by a professional photographer such as George Henry Seeley, a native of Massachusetts and a member of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession group[b] or Henry Havelock Pierce, who spent time following his “…Gilded Age clientle from Boston to New York to Newport[c]. The Diascope was patented by New York portrait photographer, Mr. B.J. Falk and manufactured by L. A. Dubernet, 44 East Eighth Street, New York[d].
The Autochrome, invented by Louis and Auguste Lumière and patented in 1904 is an additive color screen plate process and was the first commercially viable color photographic process. The Lumières introduced the Autochrome process to the world on June 10, 1907[e] and it became popular amongst amateur and professional photographers from 1907-1930’s. The Lumières built upon years of experimentation starting with James Clerk Maxwell’s 1861 additive color synthesis process. Maxwell’s process involved using three separate lantern glass slides, individual red, green and blue filters to both take the image with and project through and three separate yet superimposed lantern slide projectors to produce a color image[f].The Autochrome, as we will see, simplified the process of color photography.
Alfred Stieglitz, founder of the Photo-Secession, was at the Photo Club de Paris[g] introduction of the Autochrome process given by Auguste and Louis Lumiere and introduced the process to America. On November 15, 1907 the Autochrome process became available to amateur and professional photographers in America. [h] By 1913, the Lumière factory was producing 6,000 Autochrome plates a day and kept manufacturing them until 1932.[i]
According to a 1916 Photo-era magazine[j], R.J. Fitzsimons was the sole American agent based in New York City for the Lumière’s Autochrome process.
It was the amateur photographers however that fully embraced the Autochrome. This was reflected in the numerous articles written about individuals’ experiences with this new color photography in the pages of such magazines and photo journals as American photography, The Photogram, Photo-Era, Practical color photography, and The American Annual of Photography.
The popularity of the Autochrome was exhibited in the pages of National Geographic beginning in 1914 and continued until the advent of Kodachrome slide film in 1935. Between 1914 and 1935 National Geographic photographers took an estimated 12,000 Autochromes.[k] In addition, French banker and philanthropist, Albert Kahn, sent a group of photographers to Autochrome the world, documenting among other things, World War 1 and the collapse of the Ottoman empires. Kahn’s endeavor resulted in 72,000 Autochromes, most of which have not been published and are housed at the Albert Kahn Museum in Paris.[l]
In order to give some context to the affordability to amateur photographers using the Autochrome process I looked at the 1930 publication, Color Photography with Autochrome Plate[m]. A box of four 4 x 5 inch Autochrome plates cost $2.28., cover glass per dozen costs $.50, a Diascope viewer, $5.25 for a total of $8.03. In 2010 dollars these materials would cost $100.66. These costs do not include any chemicals or other processing supplies the photographer would need. The average yearly family income for American workers in 1930 was approximately $1,524 with expenditures of $1,512.[n] Average family income of 1930 translates to approximately $19,104.69 in 2010 dollars and in 1935 the average hourly wage in manufacturing was $.58. This translates to $9.27 per hour in 2010. In 2010 dollars, a photographer’s $100 investment into basic Autochrome material would be equal to $1,253.58 today. As one can see, making Autochromes was expensive and out of the reach of most workers.
The Autochrome manufacturing process was quite elaborate. At the factory in Lyon, France, the first step involved running transparent potato starch grains through numerous sieves in order to sort out those that had a diameter between ten and fifteen millimeters.[o] A slightly concave piece of glass was coated with a mixture of crude pine sap and beeswax and, a “…mosaic of microscopic grains of potato starch” is laid on the glass plate with the space between the grains filled in by spreading the plate with charcoal powder. Lastly a panchromatic silver halide emulsion is applied. As mentioned above the potato starch grains are dyed red, green and blue-violet and act as the color filters. To get a sense of the size of the grain, it took approximately four million grains to coat one square inch of the plate. In order to improve the quality of the final image, a roller with a pressure of 5 tons per square centimeter was used to flatten and evenly spread the grains out.
After careful composition, the photographer placed a yellow-orange screen on the lens; loaded the Autochrome plate into the camera with the glass side toward the lens. By placing the plate in this manner, light is filtered through the filter screen which is comprised of all those dyed potato starches, to the panchromatic emulsion. Due to the slowness of the Autochrome emulsion, the photographer needed a tripod and was restricted to shooting out of doors on sunny days. Flash powder was also used by photographers to shorten their exposure times but this, like much of the Autochrome taking process took some experimenting. Once exposed, the photographer processed the plate as a slide. This complex, multi-step process involves first developing the plate to a negative image and then back to a positive image. Once the Autochrome is fully processed, the photographer could place the plate in a Diascope viewer which would allow transmitted light to reveal the image and to also protect the image from extended periods of time exposed to the light. Otherwise, the only other ways to view the image was by holding it up to the light or projecting it.
The result of the photographer’s endeavor was a luminous, dream like quality that had not been seen before in photography prior to the advent of the Autochrome.
a. Wood, John. 1993. The art of the autochrome: the birth of color photography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. p. XIII.
b. Getty Museum. George Henry Seeley (Getty Museum). http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artMakerDetails?maker=1510 (accessed 2010_07_16)
c..Autochrome Still-Life by Henry Havelock Pierce – American Museum of Photography
http://www.photographymuseum.com/autochromepierce.html (accessed 2010_07_19).
d. The Photogram. Autochrome Notes. The Photographic Monthly. Vol. XV, No. 153, July 1908. p. 219. Found in: http://books.google.com/books?ei=t0M7TJOFEYL48AbU75mnBg&ct=result&dq=B.J.+Diascope+costs&q=diascope&pg=RA1-PA220&id=EbYEAAAAYAAJ&ots=qGJ6pRGKIZ#v=onepage&q=AUTOCHROME&f=true (accessed 2010_07_12)
e. Autochromes : the dawn of colour photography. http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/autochrome/pdfs/Autochromes%20-%20Dawn%20of%20Colour%20-%20essay.pdf (accessed 2009_08_18)
f. Autochromes : the dawn of colour photography. http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/autochrome/pdfs/Autochromes%20-%20Dawn%20of%20Colour%20-%20essay.pdf (accessed 2009_08_18)
g. http://www.photographymuseum.com/potatoestopictures.html (accessed 2009_08_18)
h. Chambers, Frank V. 1907. The camera : an illustrated magazine devoted to the advancement of photography. Philadelphia: The Camera Publishing Company. P. 432
i. Wood, John. 1993. The art of the autochrome: the birth of color photography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. P. 29.
j. Photo-era magazine, the American journal of photography; an illustrated monthly of photography and allied arts. Volume XXXVII, No. 1. July 1916. p. 97
k. National Geographic. First Published Natural-Color Photo. http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photographers/first-natural-color-photo.html (accessed 2010_07_19)
l. The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn.
http://www.albertkahn.co.uk/museum.html (accessed 2010_07_19)
m. R.J. Fitzsimons Corp. Color Photography with Autochrome Plates, New York: R.J. Fitzsimons Corp., 1930.
n. United States. 2006. 100 years of U.S. consumer spending: data for the nation, New York City, and Boston. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/opub/uscs/1934-36.pdf (accessed 2010_07_16)
o. National Media Museum. Dawn of Color. http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk (accessed 2009_08_18)