The Autochrome project

written for the stereosite by Peter Norman (Burgess Hill, UK)

The Autochrome Project is a per­son­al endeav­our to pro­duce a work­able method of recre­at­ing the Lumière Autochrome. 

Stereo­scop­ic autochrome, France 1928
Stereo­scop­ic autochrome, France 1928

The Autochrome was one of the prin­ci­pal ways of pro­duc­ing colour pho­tog­ra­phy in the ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry. Patent­ed in 1904 by the broth­ers Auguste and Louis Lumière, the process con­sist­ed of a glass plate coat­ed with a micro­scop­ic lay­er of mixed pota­to starch gran­ules dyed orange-red, green and blue-vio­let. This cre­at­ed a ran­dom mosa­ic screen in which each par­ti­cle of starch act­ed as a colour fil­ter and then a black and white sil­ver emul­sion was coat­ed on top. The plate was placed in the cam­era, back to front with the mosa­ic screen fac­ing towards the lens. Dur­ing Expo­sure, light hit­ting the sur­face of the starch would split into its addi­tive colours of red, green and blue before reach­ing the pho­to­sen­si­tive sur­face beneath. The plate is then put through a ‘rever­sal process’ which involves devel­op­ing the exposed neg­a­tive image and then bleach­ing it away using an acid. This leaves the un exposed sil­ver which is then fogged with light and re devel­oped to pro­duce a pos­i­tive image. When viewed through trans­mit­ted light the ran­dom pat­tern of the micro­scop­ic grains would recre­ate the orig­i­nal colour of the scene. 

Starch mix of the Autochrome project under the micro­scope
Pro­file of an Lumière Autochrome plate

The Lumière broth­ers in the l’Il­lus­tra­tion mag­a­zine 1907
Col­ored insert for a detailed arti­cle about the Autochrome process in the l’Il­lus­tra­tion mag­a­zine 1907

A much sit­ed char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Autochrome is its colour palette. With the view of the dyed starch as an ana­logue to coloured pig­ment, the process dove­tails unique­ly between the worlds of pho­tog­ra­phy and paint­ing; on the one hand it offers up a clear view of a past life and on the oth­er ren­der­ing a twi­light impres­sion of a world that we cov­et. 

These char­ac­ter­is­tics have formed my rea­sons for want­i­ng to be able to explore and use the colour palette for mak­ing pho­tographs on glass. Fol­low­ing a revival of learn­ing and prac­tice in ear­ly pho­to­graph­ic process­es this has increased the knowl­edge and inter­est of these tech­niques. Due to the com­plex­i­ty of the Autochrome pro­duc­tion I feel an alter­na­tive method of repro­duc­ing this process needs to be con­sid­ered. By draw­ing from the orig­i­nal Lumiere research mate­ri­als repro­duced in ‘The Lumiere Autochrome, His­to­ry, Tech­nol­o­gy & Preser­va­tion’ by Bertrand Lavedrine and Jean Paul Gan­dol­fo, this has pro­vid­ed me with a foun­da­tion to how this could be pos­si­ble. By break­ing down the process into its con­stituent parts, alter­na­tive ways of look­ing at each stage can be achieved. This has con­sist­ed of research into dye­ing dif­fer­ent starch­es, how it is applied onto glass and how this can be coat­ed with pho­to­graph­ic chem­istry.

Mak­ing of pho­to­graph­ic emul­sion in the dark room.
Coat­ing is only pos­si­ble on an absolute­ly hor­i­zon­tal sur­face.
Coat­ed glass plates in the dark room.
Bat­tery pow­ered dry­ing box.

To expand upon this research and devel­op­ment, in Octo­ber I vis­it­ed the George East­man House in Rochester, New York to learn Pho­to­graph­ic Emul­sion mak­ing with Process His­to­ri­an, Nick Bran­dreth & Mark Oster­man. This was part of a week­long pri­vate tuition that involved mak­ing a Sil­ver Bro­mide Dry Plate emul­sion and coat­ing it onto glass plates. Fol­low­ing this I have begun to start mak­ing basic sil­ver bro­mide emul­sions on my own. The next stage is to focus on devel­op­ing more com­plex emul­sion for­mu­las that will increase the pos­si­bil­i­ties of The Autochrome Project. 

Neg­a­tive on a glass plate coat­ed with my own sil­ver bro­mide emul­sion.

Dig­i­tal inver­sion of a neg­a­tive

In sup­port of this, my research has includ­ed look­ing at Stereo Autochromes as I believe this to be a fas­ci­nat­ing area in its own right. A large amount of these appear to have come from pri­vate col­lec­tions and offer an inti­mate view of life on the ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry. Whilst my study is not only for the pur­suit of Stere­oscopy, I feel that by explor­ing this area in future can only increase the scope of my project. 

Stereo­scop­ic autochrome, France 1920s
Stereo­scop­ic autochrome, France 1928
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Peter Norman (Burgess Hill, UK)

I am a UK based pho­tog­ra­ph­er spe­cial­is­ing in his­tor­i­cal process­es, includ­ing dry plate pho­tog­ra­phy. A few years ago I came across an ear­ly colour process called the Autochrome from a por­trait of the author Mark Twain. I quick­ly became fas­ci­nat­ed with Autochromes and decid­ed to see if it was pos­si­ble to recre­ate this tech­nique. My progress is ongo­ing and my project has involved vis­it­ing the East­man House Muse­um in Rochester, New York to learn Pho­to­graph­ic Chem­istry. Along­side this I am a Art Han­dling Tech­ni­cian at the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery in Lon­don.

Insta­gram-pro­file: theau­tochrome­pro­ject