National Geographic

Autochromes: The First Flash Of Color

National Geographic

There's a legend that when the Lumiere brothers — pioneers of motion pictures — showed their film of an approaching train in 1896, the audience ran amok in terror. These early films were far from realistic by today's standards, but at the time, a moving picture was a revolutionary sight.

  • Girl with fan, Lagartera, Spain, circa 1926
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    Girl with fan, Lagartera, Spain, circa 1926
    Jules Gervais-Courtellemont/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • Children read the coming attractions of the traveling Silvan Drew Circus, Bristolville, Ohio, published 1931
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    Children read the coming attractions of the traveling Silvan Drew Circus, Bristolville, Ohio, published 1931
    Jacob J. Gayer/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • Porter with wine gourds, Bali, 1928
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    Porter with wine gourds, Bali, 1928
    Franklin Price Knott/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • A Naxi leader in Tibet, China, circa 1927
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    A Naxi leader in Tibet, China, circa 1927
    Joseph Rock/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • A popular child actress is costumed for the role of a mythological male warrior, Bali, 1928
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    A popular child actress is costumed for the role of a mythological male warrior, Bali, 1928
    Franklin Price Knott/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • A gypsy in traditional dress poses arms akimbo in a chair, Granada, Spain, published 1929
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    A gypsy in traditional dress poses arms akimbo in a chair, Granada, Spain, published 1929
    Jules Gervais-Courtellemont/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • A Tyrolean singing troupe in traditional costume meets by a medieval wall, Innsbruck, Austria, published 1932
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    A Tyrolean singing troupe in traditional costume meets by a medieval wall, Innsbruck, Austria, published 1932
    Hans Hildenbrand/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • Men on camelback stride past the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx before it was excavated, Giza, Egypt, 1925
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    Men on camelback stride past the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx before it was excavated, Giza, Egypt, 1925
    Hans Hildenbrand/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • Ships approach a dock to unload iron ore in Ashtabula, Ohio, circa 1928
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    Ships approach a dock to unload iron ore in Ashtabula, Ohio, circa 1928
    Jacob J. Gayer/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • Tourists admire the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., published 1935
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    Tourists admire the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., published 1935
    Jacob J. Gayer/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • A woman poses outside the South Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico, circa 1914
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    A woman poses outside the South Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico, circa 1914
    Franklin Price Knott/Steven Kasher Gallery)
  • Merchants sit by their stand of honeycakes in Bombay, circa 1912
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    Merchants sit by their stand of honeycakes in Bombay, circa 1912
    Jules Gervais-Courtellemont/Steven Kasher Gallery)

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For some reason, though, Auguste and Louis Lumiere — believing audiences would have little interest in motion pictures — shifted gears to focus on still photography. In 1907, they patented the first commercially successful color process, which they called the Autochrome Lumiere.

It involved glass plates, a backlight, soot and (oddly) potato starch — and it revolutionized photography. Magazines like National Geographic started dispatching photographers to shoot with autochromes; documentary fieldwork became more feasible with this relatively portable medium. For about 30 years, it was the most widely used process for capturing color.

Today, almost exactly 100 years since the Lumieres' invention, the National Geographic Society has more than 15,000 glass plates in its archives, most of which are autochromes. Their archivist, Bill Bonner, gave me a guided tour through the magazine's basement archive — a pretty impressive fortress of photography, to say the least.

In 1983, when Bonner started working in the archives, one of his firsts projects was to re-sleeve each of these glass plates (11,000 of which are unpublished) in an acid-free envelope. So he has seen every single glass plate — and is actually the only person to have seen most of them. Fortunately, a few are going on display for the rest of us to see. An exhibition of prints made from some of these autochromes opens Friday at New York City's Steven Kasher Gallery.

Close-up of an autochrome

hide captionA close-up view of a 1935 autochrome shows the grainy colors.

Jacob J. Gayer/National Geographic Society/ Steven Kasher Gallery

At first glance, the graininess of the large prints looks like digital noise from a cranked-up ISO. But it's actually the potato starch, says Julia Andrews, one of the main curators for the exhibition. The pointillistic quality of these photographs — small dots of orange, green and purple — gives them a misty, nostalgic tone. The above image of a young Spanish girl with a fan looks more like a Vermeer painting than a photograph.

That's partly because many of these photographs were posed. The opulent Spanish dress, Andrews told me, was acutally a loaner costume. So much for photojournalism! Both color and documentary photography have come a long way since the autochrome — as has National Geographic magazine. This exhibition is a rare peek inside an enormous and mostly off-limits archive, and a colorful rendition of an era that we usually see in monochrome. Like this 1930s Ohio circus photo —

Children read the coming attractions of a traveling circus, 1931

hide captionChildren read the coming attractions of the traveling Silvan Drew Circus in Bristolville, Ohio, published October 1931 (Jacob J. Gayer/National Geographic Society/Steven Kasher Gallery)

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