Colour Photography , Introduction

©Werner Hammerstingl, 1998, 1999

The early colour photography processes of Charles Cros and Louis Ducos du Hauron were too complex to be exploited commercially.

Despite the successful results which they achieved and promoted, colour failed to make its way in photography. To make up for its absence, photographers resorted to the use (and abuse) of the toning possibilities offered by gold or silver salts and the changes of hue permitted by carbon printing.

Ranging from a bluish to a purplish-blue tone by way of dark brown or red, photography thus contrived to give the illusion of being in colour, but it remained monochrome.

Finally, in 1891, Gabriel Lippmann, professor of physics at the Sorbonne, devised a method by wnich the natural colours of objects were reproduced by means of interference on a single plate; but it was complicated and the results unpredictable.

After experimenting with it the Lumiere brothers reverted to the three-colour process (i.e. the combination of three negatives); but they were convinced that direct colour photography was possible and pursued their researches in this direction.

In 1907 Louis Lumiere brought out his autochrome process of colour photography entirely new and of exceptional quality. The autochrome plate took the form of a transparency: it originated from Louis Lumiere's discovery in 1904 of the properties of potato starch. The photographic plate was covered with minute grains of starch, dyed orange, green and violet in equal proportions. Washed with an emulsion of silver gelatin-bromide, the plate was exposed in the camera, the untouched side of the glass foremost. The coloured grains acted as selection filters. Development turned the negative into a positive reproducing the original colours by the phenomenon of complementarity.

These autochrome plates yielded their maximum intensity when projected, but they could also be printed on paper with excellent results. On the strength of these results, and backed by the technical proficiency of their laboratories in Lyons, the Lumiere brothers marketed their invention in 1907 and enjoyed a great success, since it was easy to use.

The autochrome plate for the first time put colour photography within the reach of everyone. It held the field until 1932, when the glass plate was replaced by film; but the annual production had already reached the rate of one million plates.

By 1903, Edward Steichen, in New York, had the opportunity of experimenting with this technique before it was put on the market. He was delighted with it and exhibited some of his own autochrome plates in 1907 at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery in New York. Steichen gave it as his opinion that the colours as printed on photographic paper, however accurate in tone, could never equal in intensity and brilliance the colours of the autochrome plate.

His opinion carried weight, and even today the autochrome plates of this period have a charm all their own, the colours having remained as fresh and bright as ever. The system devised by the Lumiere brothers corresponds aesthetically to Pointillism, the division of colours worked out by Seurat in painting, but owes nothing to it scientifically. What it does show is the soundness of the artistic intuition of Seurat and the Neo-lmpressionists.

The microscopic division of the colours on the photographic plate creates a poetry akin to that of the painters. The Lumiere factory and laboratories were located at Lyons, where the two brothers were well known and had many friends. Their invention aroused great interest locally and, taking it up, several amateur photographers of Lyons produced work of a quality vying with that of the Lumiere brothers and their operators. It was only much later that photographers came to use colour for expressive and spatial effects. For the time being, they explored its descriptive and sentimental possibilities, choosing subjects of immediate appeal.