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The Dawn of Colour
- Published 26th June 2007
Mark Twain, 1908 by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966), Autochrome
The Royal Photographic collection at the NMM
Celebrating the Centenary of the Autochrome
25 May – 23 September 2007
National Media Museum
Marking one hundred years of the first practical process for colour photography – the Autochrome, invented by the Lumiere brothers – the National Media Museum presents a major summer show on what has been described as 'perhaps the most beautiful of all the photographic processes'.
In the years before World War I both amateur and professional photographers eagerly embraced its possibilities. The show, drawing extensively on the National Media Museum’s collection (including the Royal Photographic Society collection), together with material borrowed from the Rothschild Archive, London, will feature many previously unseen images of the world in colour a century ago.
Celebrities, families, landmarks, wildlife and gardens captured by the likes of Coburn, Lionel de Rothschild and Etheldreda Janet Laing will be juxtaposed with lesser known but important figures in the world of early colour, including that great contributor to every form of human endeavour, Anon. Among the Autochrome pioneers are Mervyn O’Gorman (also a pioneering aviator and motorist and Superintendent of the Royal Balloon Factory) and Helen Messinger Murdoch, who captured her round the world journey in colour in 1913-14, just before the world was plunged into conflict.
Rather than the paper based prints we know today the Autochrome was a transparency, viewed by transmitted light.The exhibition explores the origins of colour photography and explains how the Autochrome process worked, using projection, lightboxes and screen-based media to reveal the exquisite, luminous beauty of the Autochrome process.
Colin Harding, curator of Photographic Technology at the National Media Museum, said, “The Lumière brothers are best known as film pioneers with their invention of the cinématographe in 1895. But they had also been experimenting with colour photography for several years. In 1904, they presented the results of their work to the French Académie des Sciences. Three years later they had perfected their process and had begun the commercial manufacture of Autochrome plates.”
“On 10 June 1907, the first public demonstration of their process took place at the offices of the French newspaper L’Illustration. The event was a triumph. News of the discovery spread quickly and critical response was rapturous. Photographers were naturally keen to try out Autochrome plates for themselves. At first, there was frustration; demand far outstripped supply. It was not until October that the first, eagerly-awaited, consignment of plates went on sale in Britain.”
“The manufacture of Autochrome plates was a complex industrial process. First, trans-parent starch grains were passed through a series of sieves to isolate grains between ten and fifteen microns (thousandths of a millimetre) in diameter. Many different types of starch were tried, but the humble potato was found to give the best results. These microscopic starch grains were separated into batches, dyed red, green and violet, mixed together and spread over a glass plate coated with a sticky varnish. Next, carbon black (charcoal powder) was spread over the plate to fill in any gaps between the coloured starch grains. A roller submitted the plate to a pressure of five tons per square centimetre in order to spread the grains and flatten them out. On every square inch of the surface of an Autochrome plate there are about four million transparent starch grains, each one of which acts as a tiny coloured filter. Finally, the plate was coated with a panchromatic photographic emulsion.”
“The complexity of the manufacturing process meant that Autochrome plates were inevitably more expensive than monochrome. In 1910, a box of four quarter-plates cost three shillings (15p), compared with two shillings (10p) for a dozen monochrome plates.”
“Autochrome plates were, however, comparatively simple to use – a fact that greatly enhanced their appeal to amateur photographers. Moreover, they did not require any special apparatus. Photographers could use their existing cameras. However, exposure times were very long – about thirty times that of monochrome plates. A summer landscape taken in the midday sun, still required at least a one second exposure. In cloudy weather, this could be increased to as much as ten seconds or more. Spontaneous ‘snapshot’ photography was out of the question, and the use of a tripod was essential.”
With the Support of N.M. Rothschild & Sons Ltd
Press information and images:
Press & PR Manager
National Media Museum
07977 577 797