Autochrome Lumière was the first practicable method of colour photography in history. The process was invented by the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and was introduced in 1907. Autochrome was the leading colour process until the early 1930s.
The Lumière company
Antoine Lumière (1840-1911) was a portrait photographer in Lyon around 1870. His sons Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis (1864-1948) helped him to prepare the glass plates[1-p.8].
Antoine changed his business and began to focus on the production of glass plate negatives. This shift was inspired by the potential of the new gelatine dry plate process that was invented by Richard Leach Maddox in 1871. Antoine was not very successful. His sons, especially Louis, proved to be more talented and developed the company’s first succesful dry plate.
On January 1, 1884, Société Antoine Lumière et fils was founded. They set up a factory in Montplaisier, a suburb of Lyon. In the 1880s, Louis Lumière developed the famous Étiquette bleue dry plates with a fast orthochromatic emulsion[1-p.10]. The company started to grow.
Société anonyme des plaques et papiers photographiques Antoine Lumière et ses fils was founded on 1 June 1892. It produced gelatin silver bromide plates, print paper and chemicals for developing. In the 1890s the company was one of the largest producers of photography tools in the world. Due to their success, there was room for innovation.
After 1903 the dry plate sales decreased. The company needed to strengthen its position. A merger with Kodak failed, but in 1911 it merged with Jougla to the Union Photographique Industrielle (UPI). The new company sold its products as Lumière & Jougla[1-p.29].
Before Louis and Auguste turned to colour photography, they were first active as pioneers in the film industry. They patented the Cinématographe on February 13, 1895. It was a compact movie camera, printer and projector in one. They made short movies and travelled around the world with their Cinématographe show. Despite the success, they withdrew from the cinema business around 1905.
They turned to the search for colour photography and initially tried to simplify existing processes of Ducos de Haudron and Lippmann to make them suitable for mass production and wide use. These attempts failed and Louis went in search for a new process. It took him seven years to solve the complex problems and on 17 December 1903 the principles of their new colour process were patented[1-p.97]. It took another four years to industrialise the manufacturing process and the Autochrome Lumière was introduced to the market in 1907.
Autochrome is based on the screen process and additive colour. The plates are covered in microscopic red, green and blue coloured potato starch grains. Charcoal powder was spread over the plate to fill the gaps between the coloured starch grains. The layer of coloured starch grains acts as a colour filter. When a photograph is taken, light passes through this colour filter before it reaches the emulsion.
No special camera was needed to make an autochrome and any photographer could immediately get to work. They had to place the autochrome plate in the camera with the coloured starch grains layer nearest the lens so that light passed through the grains before reaching the sensitive emulsion. A yellow filter was needed on the lens because the color sensitivity of the panchromatic emulsion did not match the colors of the starch grains. The emulsion was very sensitive to blue light and the yellow filter allowed the autochrome to reproduce faithful colours.
Developing the exposed plate was relatively easy. The exposed plate is developed to a positive image. There is no negative so it’s not possible to duplicate the image and every developed autochrome is therefore unique.
There were also disadvantages. The layer of potato starch grains blocked a lot of light, resulting in long exposure times. This was further extended by the extra yellow filter. The exposure times could easily reach 10 seconds and spontaneous photography was out of the question. When people were photographed, they were required to remain motionless during the exposure.
Autochromes were packaged in boxes of four instead of twelve, which was common for monochrome plates. A box of four autochromes was more expensive than a box of twelve monochrome plates.
Autochrome plates were available for the 45x107mm and 6x13cm stereo formats. Stereo autochromes had some specific challenges. Because there was no negative, autochrome glass plates had to be cut in order to transpose them.
Jules Richard came up with an extension for the Taxiphote that didn’t require transposing. The slides were placed upside down in the slide trays and prisms were placed on the oculars to invert the image. These Redresseurs became available in 1913. Cases with two sets of exchanging eyepieces were available: one set for autochromes and one set for normal stereoviews.
Due to a cover glass, autochromes were thicker than the usual monochrome stereoviews. They usually still fit in a hand-held stereoscope, but they were too thick for the slide trays of multiple view stereoscopes and manufacturers produced special trays for autochromes.
The look and feel
The coloured starch grains were distributed randomly across the plate. The grains are invisible but the clustering of grains of the same colour is visible. It gives the autochrome a grainy look. The pastel shade colours and the staged images, because of the long exposure times, contribute to the distinctive and beautiful look of an autochrome.
Because the presence of the starch grains screen, the developed autochrome image looks very dark. Bright light and special viewers, like the Diascope, were needed to enhance the viewing experience.
Rise and fall
From its introduction in 1907, the autochrome was a huge success. There were alternative processes, but the high production costs and the small market meant that there was little room for challengers. The autochrome remained the leading colour process until the early 1930s. Although the autochrome contributed to the company’s fame, the product never became profitable[1-p.266].
Filmcolor is launched by the company in 1931. It is a variant of autochrome on sheet film. It has a slightly better speed, but the basic principles didn’t change. In 1933, Lumicolor appears for medium format roll film.
Alternatives from Agfa and Kodak appeared on the market in the 1930s. Kodak introduced the Kodachrome in 1935. It’s based on different colour principles. The film offered good sensitivity, fine grain and was more suitable for the popular smaller 35mm cameras. As a result, the autochrome lost its popularity and was replaced by the new films.
- The Lumière Autochrome – History, technology and preservation, Bertrand Lavédrine, Jean-Paul Gandolfo, 2013
- The Stereosite – Le Taxiphote – the most famous French stereo viewer, Pascal Martiné
See also: blogposts about Autochrome Lumière