written by Mark Jacobs
© Leon Gimpel, rue Grenata La Société Française de la Photographie
On June 10 1907, exactly one hundred years ago today, L'Illustration, the first illustrated French journal, officially launched the color process patented four years earlier by Auguste and Louis Lumiere- the Autochrome- at it's headquarters in Paris.
In front of an audience of six hundred selected guests and major personalities from the arts, politics and the press, including Edward Steichen, Albert Kahn, Marcel Meys and others, Auguste Lumière unveiled the “miracle” of an easy to use process for achieving color photography.
L’ Illustration was a fortuitous stage for establishing international interest and the conference proved to be extremely successful. On June 15, 1907, only five days after it’s public introduction in Paris, L’lllustration published four autochromes by the photographer Leon Gimpel to illustrate an article Gimpel had written on the new method of color photography. Gimpel, it should be noted, was also the instigator of the Paris conference. L’lllustration thus became the first publication anywhere in the world to publish an autochrome in color.
The Gimpel Autochromes, which were reproduced in L’lllustration, were printed on separate plates and inserted into the magazine. Included in the insert was an image of a group of infantry soldiers photographed on May Day 1907 in Paris as well as a still life and two scenic views-a viewof Villefranche-sur-Mer and a sunset view of the lake at Geneve.
The first actual "news" photograph that appeared in color occurred barely two weeks later, on June 29, 1907, again in L’lllustration. Leon Gimpel, who worked as a reporter/photographer for L’lllustration since 1904, asked the King and the Queen of Denmark if they would sit for their portrait using the new color process. As fortune would have it, the Danish sovereigns were on a visit to France on June 17, 1907.
The accompanied article stated that this feat was a technical milestone by just taking about ten days to produce the 92,000 copies of the magazine. L’lllustration was one of the few magazines anywhere in the world at that time which owned the equipment necessary for producing tri-chrome half-tone reproductions. A total of 14 autochromes were reproduced in that inaugural year of 1907. These autochromes are now in the collection of the Société Française de Photographie.
The January, 1908 edition of the U.S. magazine, The Century published two autochromes by Eduard J. Steichen - a portrait of Alfred Stieglitz holding a copy of Camera Work and a portrait of Gertrude Käsebier. Stieglitz, of course, had exhibited autochromes at the Photo-Secession Galleries on Sept 27 & 28, 1907, November 18-December 30, 1907, March 12-April 2, 1908, January 4-16, 1908 and February 4-22, 1909. However, the real future of the autochrome did not long remain with Stieglitz or Steichen, Coburn, Eugene, White, Seeley, Haviland, or the great Kuhn, but with photographers such as Passet, Gimpel, Tournassoud, Clatworthy, Meys, Edis, Castelnau, Cuville, Courtellemont, Hildenbrand, Busy, Knott, Gadmer, Leon, Genthe, Mante & Goldschmidt, Mespoulet, etc., and talented amateurs such as Murdoch, Warburg, Andreyev, Paneth, Hachette, Adrien, Deglane, O'Gorman, Laing, Rothschild, Steele, Willis, Zoller, Personnaz, Veyre, and many others. To continue to insist, as some historians and critics maintain even today, that color photography didn't really begin until the invention of Kodachrome is analogous to believing that black
and white photography didn't really begin until the invention of Tri-X.
In honor of the Centenary of the Autochrome, several exhibitions, books, and projects are currently underway or will shortly be available:
For those who might be unaware of it's existence, Patrick Nasles produced an excellent documentary on the autochrome in 2005. This French documentary can be viewed here:
Interested in technical aspects of autochrome manufacturing? Then see this excellent interview with Bertrand Lavédrine, one the world's foremost experts on the science and conservation of autochrome photography:
Of special note:
Pam Roberts new book", A Century of Colour Photography "From the autochrome to the digital age". is illustrated with examples of some of the finest autochromes in both public and private collections throughout Europe and the US.
Her text provides the absolute latest research into autochrome history:
Bill Becker's American Museum of Photography" will soon open an autochrome exhibit featuring some of the finest examples of the autochrome art culled from Bill's own spectacular collection. Look for it opening soon:
Though not specifically written for the Autochrome centennial, Nadia Valla's site on the great autochromist Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud is the finest on-line site devoted to a single autochromist. Tournassoud's autochromes rank among the best ever made. The site is accessible in both French and English.
Alan Griffiths' Luminous-Lint site is still home to the major on-line autochrome exhibit curated by Nadia Valla. Within it's 11 chapters, one can view all of Leon Gimpel's work as it appeared in the 1907 issue of
L’lllustration discussed above. It also includes examples of images by Kuhn, Clatworthy, Courtellemont, Tournassoud, Edis, Murdoch, and a host of others.