Autochromes

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2007 celebrates the centennial of the autochrome, the first practical color photographic process. It was invented in France by Louis Lumière (1864-1948) who, along with his brother, August Lumière (1862-1954), was also instrumental in the development of the motion picture. The Lumière company began widespread production and marketing of autochrome plates in 1907. The autochrome would remain the most widely used color process in the world for the next 30 years.

The autochrome process began with a sheet of glass coated with a layer of millions of microscopic potato starch grains dyed in three colors: red-orange, green, and violet-blue. These transparent, colored grains formed a tri-colored, mosaic screen through which light was filtered before acting on a light sensitive black and white emulsion. Combinations of the three colors produced the full spectrum of colors. Chemically reversing this negative created a luminous, vivid, color transparency that could be seen in a personal viewer called a diascope, or projected as a slide. Like daguerreotypes, each autochrome is a unique object.

Today we are familiar with the color pixels of our television or computer monitors, but a century ago autochrome plates struck a visual parallel with the Pointillist painting technique of Georges Seurat (1859-1891), namely that two colors juxtaposed next to each other would conjure up a third color in the mind. As small as the grains were, their uneven distribution resulted in a soft, hazy effect, immensely appealing to the Pictorialist photographers of the early twentieth century, who sought to establish photography as an art form equal to painting and drawing. Today, viewers can delight in the nostalgia of a process that combines the realism of photography with the stylistic elements of the Post-Impressionists.

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