Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière (pictured) introduced the first form of practical color photography to the masses with the Autochrome Lumière. Prior to autochrome, there were some attempts at color photography, and the first color photograph was taken by James Clerk Maxwell in 1862. But Maxwell’s process was complex and could not be readily adapted by the general population.
The Lumière Brothers had a much more simplified process and their key ingredient for color photographs was the humble potato. The brothers used dyed (red, green and blue) potato starch on a glass plate as a filter. A thin layer of light-sensitive emulsion was added on top of the potato starch. When this was flipped and exposed to light, it would produce color transparencies.
Autochrome required long exposer times, like the traditional black-and-white photographs before them. This created a hazy effect on the photos, as you can see in this photo by John Cimon Warburg from 1915. The autochrome gave the images an almost painting-like quality.
It’s hard to believe that the image above is actually an autochrome photograph and not a painting. “That’s one thing that’s unique about the autochromes that you don’t see with modern photos – that beautiful painterly look,” said Bill Bonner, the image collection archivist at National Geographic. The above photo is, “Artists paint on the banks of Dordogne River” near Beaulieu, France, in 1925.
Autochrome was first introduced in Paris where it became an instant hit. It had also traveled all over Europe and some British photographers, like Etheldreda Laing and John Cimon Warburg became known for their autochrome photographs.
Laing was interested in autochrome since its inception in 1908. She took loads of photos of her two daughters, Janet and Iris (pictured), primarily in the gardens of her Oxford home. When she took photos of her daughters inside (like above), the girls had to remain perfectly still for up to a minute.
Shortly after the autochrome’s introduction in Europe, it came to the United States and also became popular among the American upper class (they were an expensive luxury). This above photo of a woman sewing an American flag was taken in 1910.
This photograph of American luminary, Mark Twain, was taken in 1908, one year after the release of the autochrome and two years before the writer’s death. It was taken by famous American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, who helped develop the concept of American pictorialism.
By 1914, the first autochrome photograph was published in National Geographic. The photo (above) was of a flower garden in Belgium. The National Geographic archives currently hold around 15,000 autochrome plates, which is one of the largest collections in the world.
Bill Bonner, the photo archivist at National Geographic, has seen every one of those 15,000 autochrome plates. That’s because when he took the job in 1983, one of his first projects for the publication was to re-sleeve every single plate.
Usually, when you think back to photos from this time period, you think of them being black-and-white. But these autochrome images, like this scene in Egypt from 1913, makes it feel like these images are somehow closer to us.
Autochrome had a little over a 20-year-run as the leading color photography technology. By the 1930s, autochrome was replaced by Kodachrome, created by the Kodak Company in 1935. This is the photography process we were accustomed to for decades (the film you’d go get developed at the local CVS) before the invention of digital photography.
By 2009, Kodak stopped releasing their iconic color film because of the rise in popularity of digital photography. The world of photography as we know it is dominated by digital, and probably will be for the foreseeable future.
While autochrome may be long gone, there is something to be said for the ethereal beauty of the images it created. It also gave us such unique insight into history that we had previously only seen in black-and-white. Who knew such loveliness could come from a potato?