Autochromes Lumière
The revelation of colors

 

The Revelation of Colour

 

Introduction by Nathalie Boulouc
As the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz proclaimed in a letter to Photography (August, 1907) after the commercialization of the Autochrome: "Soon the whole world will run wild with colour, and Lumière will be responsible." Officially presented in the pages of the French newspaper Illustration in June 1907, the first industrial process for colour photography would indeed revolutionise the practice of photography.

 

Confined to monochromatic techniques for the whole of the 19th century, photographers were finally able to access the full range of the visible spectrum, which had until then remained inaccessible to them. For amateurs, who represented the majority of users, as well as for committed professionals, the switch to colour was made despite the constraints of a unique image that was fragile, costly and difficult to reproduce. For, as the French art collector Antonin Personnaz declared, the Autochrome has "finally touched upon this ideal so long pursued: la couleur!"

 

Original Aesthetic Perspectives
In effect, the use of colour brought with it an additional layer of "truth" to photographic representation, which would seem to reinforce its value for documentation and visual testimony. But beyond the technical expansion of photographic possibilities, the mastery of colour offered a new means of expression in itself. Produced upon a glass support, and commonly viewed by forming an enlarged projection, the Autochrome pointed the way towards a number of original aesthetic perspectives.
All the qualities of the Autchrome would be exploited to this end and les autochromistes (as they were called) often drew their inspiration from the lessons of painters. By the subtle rendering of light and transparency, subjects in colour allowed for a chromatic interplay that was the occasion to capture an expanded range of nuances that black and white techniques simply could not facilitate. Even the colour white took on a more profound quality in the Autochrome, composed by this particular pointillist technique through the association of the three primary colours which make up the Autochrome plate. In this way, the Autochrome renewed, even reinvented, the diverse genres of photography: the portrait, the still life, the landscape, photography for exploration and documentation, scientific and medical photography, and of course, the applied and decorative arts.

 

A New Form of Capturing Time
Photographers select their subjects in different way. They may privilege the presence of bold colours, the play of delicate tints or the rhythmic punctuations of form and line. In certain cases, colour can become a subject in itself. These new qualities make us forget however, an important limitation which dates the practice back to an era long past: the instant - except by means of complex technical manipulations - was inaccessible.

This technical imperative, where the arrangement of colours had to be set - and sometimes staged - in order for the image to be exposed, would thus come to develop an aesthetic of its own. The choice of immobile motifs, such as still life, landscapes, monuments, deserted streets and moored boats, marked a new form of capturing  time. It is a time which, when it escapes from the mastery of the operator, is inscribed upon the image by a subtle haze of movements.