The Softly Surreal, Forgotten Days of Autochrome Color
​Image: Walrond, Robert


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The Softly Surreal, Forgotten Days of Autochrome Color

A hard-fought technology with serene results.

​ Color photography was hard-fought.

The first experiments began in the 1840s, involving the direct projection of light onto various photosensitive materials. An exposure using these early schemes could take days, only then offering a dim, faded picture that was soon obliterated in the presence of ambient light. Then there was the three-color process, credited to the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, which consisted of capturing different grayscale images, each one representing a primary color. The dyes used weren't nearly sensitive enough, however—they ignored red completely—and the technique wouldn't go anywhere for many years. And then, in 1903, there was the Lumiere Brothers' Autochrome.


The photos in this post are currently on display at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which is one of several Autochrome collections worldwide, including thousands archived by the National Geographic Society and tens of thousands at the Albert Kahn Museum in Paris. Though the process was the only color photography game in town until the 1930s, it didn't have much hope of going mainstream.

Image: Chapman-Taylor, J.W/Te Papa

The filters involved meant that relatively small amounts of light reached the photographic plate, and so like its color predecessors, Autochrome required long exposure times and even then they were hard to see without added light. The images were viewed with help from dangerous, very high-powered projection setups, hand-held stereoscopes, and single-viewer, sunlight-sourced diascope systems.

"Due to their suitability as subjects for long exposures, still life compositions made for rich autochrome photographs," writes Te Papa Tongarewa curator Lissa Mitchell in the Public Domain Review. "This fine art genre was ripe for photographers to create set ups that evoked nature and the changing seasons rather than just documenting found scenes."

Image: Eaton, AH/Te Papa

"For still life arrangements photographers could select objects of certain colour combinations to compose stronger colours in response to their knowledge about the autochrome palette," she explains. "Placing complementary colours together enhanced richness—hence the popularity of red and green colours in autochrome photographs."


Image: "Cleopatra," 1914, Auckland, by Robert Walrond/Te Papa

The film was based on potato starch. Tiny grains of the material were dyed the required colors, a necessary variant of the traditional primaries consisting of red-orange, green, and blue-violet. These were applied to a glass plate within a substrate of lampblack, known more commonly as soot. This layer was very precisely aligned with another plate spread with an emulsion of the photosensitive compound silver halide.

Image: Gaillardias, 1918, Auckland, by Robert Walrond/Te Papa

The dyed starch grains allowed more or less light to each the silver halide below, depending on color, and so the resulting image would indicate the required hues by how much or how little the material reacted (how grey it was). So, there would be a grayscale image encoded with color information. Viewing was just the reverse process, where the grayscale map acted as a filter, letting more or less light through for a given grain of starch (a given color). For this to work, the layers had to remain in perfect alignment.

Image: From the top of Shortland Street, 1913, Auckland, by Robert Walrond/Te Papa

At least one modern photographer (maybe the only one) has succeeded in recreating the autochrome process, Frédéric Mocellin, who describes it as "a complex and demanding project." It also feels like a uniquely dissonant project, as the soft hues of autochrome meet the harsh edges of the insta-ready post-industrial world.