Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Autochromes: The Earliest Color

(Above) An impressive 5 x 7 inch autochrome, circa 1905, from the gallery of Alex Novak and Marthe Smith. Learn more at 212.822.5662 or visit their website at www.vintageworks.net. Click for larger view.
So, you thought the year 1905 was black and white, did you? :-)

Be sure and click on images for a larger view.

All of these photos were made in Belgium around 1900 to 1910!

IF YOU COULD SEE BACK 110 YEARS, just for a moment—the people and their dress, a city street or country path in real color, that would be pretty amazing, wouldn’t it?

Just a few years ago, color photos and movie film of World War II was made available for the first time that documented various aspects of the war. Even during 1940-45, color film was quite rare. The few color photos that I have seen reproduced of soldiers and the war (rather than in B&W) brings the distant past a lot closer. Of course, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that color was finally introduced to the world—and even then, it had its limitations.

But did you know that color images were being made at the turn of the 20th century? The process was called the autochrome, and it was a complicated process using, of all things... potatoes. If it wasn’t an autochrome, any color images you might find from that period or before were hand-colored tintypes, Daguerreotypes, and other monochromatic processes. Here, for the first time, was a process that could truly capture the ambient color of the day. It looked a lot like a glass slide, and was about 4 x 5 inches (and larger) in size.

The autochrome 1907-1932

The autochrome process was invented during the years 1895-1903, by the French brothers Louis Lumière (1864-1947 and Auguste Lumière (1862-1954). It took them four further years to work out and refine the several fabrication processes. Finally in 1907 the autochrome plates came on the market and were an instant success. Until now, the photographers’ only way to produce color was tinting the plates by hand which was done by many photographers with breathtaking artistry.

Here’s part of what it took to make an autochrome plate

The nucleus of autochrome glass plates are dyed grains of potato starch measuring between 0.006—0.025mm.

  1. Make three heaps of starch, dye each pile in respectively violet, green and orange.
  2. Make a mix of these three different colored grain starches.
  3. You need a glass plate between 0.9 and 1.8mm thick.
  4. First you have to varnish the plate with a latex based varnish.
  5. Blow the colored mix of grains on the varnished plate.
  6. Gently brush the plate to remove the surplus grains.
  7. Next, a fine layer of charcoal is applied to fill the interstices between the grains.
  8. The whole plate then has to be pressed to reduce overall thickness of layers.
  9. After pressing, apply a second layer of varnish.
  10. To finish off, place a panchromatic emulsion layer.

This is briefly the production process of an autochrome plate, but imagine for all the different production stages industrial machines had to be invented to produce plates on a grand scale.

Some interesting facts

  • There are between 6,000 to 7,000 grains on a square millimeter.
  • A rolling pressure of 5000 kg per square centimeter had to be achieved to press the layers without breaking the fragile glass plate.
  • Around 1914 the daily production was 6,000 autochrome plates.
  • It is estimated that between 1907 and 1932 around 20 million plates were sold.
  • The biggest collection of autochromes (72,000 plates) is housed at the Albert Kahn Museum at Boulogne Billancourt, France.
An AM Repost from 1/23/09

Learn more at: Autochromes.
Copyright 2003 - 2004 - 2005 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008 Thomas Weynants (Pipistrello)
Media_Museum Version (6) 01 / 01 / 2008 - All rights reserved by SOFAM


Colin said...

That is absolutely fascinating! Thanks for making another very interesting & educational post-

Ken said...

They are lovely. They have an almost stereoscopic feeling of depth - that's not an artifact of scanning is it. Do you know what it is about the process that causes that?

k Madison Moore said...

What a great blog!

Jessica B Johnson said...

Wow, great collection and nice work of research, i like your shared pictures. Black n white pictures have so much attraction nowadays same like when we feel attraction for coloured pics.

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