Lumière's Autochromes

The Autochrome was patented on 17 December 1903 but not unveiled to the Academy of Science until 30 May 1904, which is why its centennial is celebrated in 2004.
The start of the 20th century saw thousands of photographs being taken all over the world using this transparency process, which Louis Lumière considered to be his masterpiece.
This open-air exhibition features largesize reproductions of many Autochromes, all of which are from the original Lumière Collection, with the aim of making them accessible to the general public. The photographs include a variety of family scenes and also a number of shots given to Louis Lumière by Autochrome-using friends, such as pictures of the Great War taken by Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud.

The Lumière Institute is located on the site where the Cinematographe and the Autochromes were invented. Its mission, as entrusted by Louis Lumière’s heirs, is to promote this heritage and bring it to the attention of the whole world.
The Lumière Institute joined forces with the Rhône Regional Authorities to design this exhibition as a way of paying tribute to the first-ever colour photographs in the department where they were invented.

The history of the Autochrome

Gabriel Veyre - Casablanca - Plaque autochrome - 1908

Louis Lumière had already invented instant photographic plates and the Cinematographe when, in late 1903, he and his brother Auguste patented a new process for producing colour photographs : the Autochrome.

Before the invention of the Autochrome, colours were separated using a complex three-colour process whereby three successive exposures had to be taken and then superimposed onto each other. Louis Lumière, however, devised a method of filtering light by using a single three-colour screen made up of millions of grains of potato starch dyed in three different colours. This mixture was then laid out on a varnished glass plate, which would be ready for use once it was coated in a black and white emulsion. Developing the plate entailed applying the same process as was used for black and white photographs at the time, with the impression being processed to reversal.

As with pointillist painting, the colour effect is rendered by viewing the image in its entirety, since the colours are created from the juxtaposition of the multitude of dots; indeed, the essential charm of these photographs derives from that very juxtaposition.
Finally, in 1907, after years of work, the Autochrome was launched onto the market and met with immediate and longlasting success – it was to be another thirty years before anything else came along to compete with it, and that was when chemical colour processes were devised to do on film what this delicate transparency process did on glass.

Logo original

Prior to Louis Lumière’s invention of the autochrome plate, color photography was a medium beyond the scope of even the wealthy or well-informed amateur. Methods invented by forerunners such as Louis Ducos du Hauron in the 1890’s required long preparation, constraints such as taking three identical images through color filters and then superposing them, long exposure times as in the early days of photography and, in the end, these methods were much closer to scientific experimentation than reliable processes giving consistent results.

Whilst only a few months separated the Cinématographe patent and its mass production, Louis Lumière required no less than 4 years of trials, attempts and successive refinements to move from his 1903 patent for " obtaining color photographs " into marketing the first color photographic plates in 1907. But the result matched these efforts : industrial production of easy-to-use sensitive plates (up to 6000 per day in 1913) allowing single-image color pictures to be obtained was henceforth possible. Moreover, for nearly 30 years, this process established itself as one of the only ways of fixing in the long-term the blueness of the sky or the complexion of a young lady on a photographic picture.

La jeune femme et le lilas
Plaque Autochrome Lumière 13 x 18 cm

To achieve this result, Louis Lumière improved his initial attempts at trichromatic filtering using a uniform mix of microscopic potato starch grains dyed in primary colors (orange-red and violet-blue). This mix (7000 grains/mm2), which was spread on a glass plate previously coated with an adhesive varnish, received a powdering of carbon black to fill the minute gaps between the potato starch grains before being rolled at pressure of 7 tonnes/cm2 to flatten the layer and increase its transparency to light. The resulting trichromatic selection mosaic was then coated with a varnish sealant, itself covered with a panchromatic black and white silver gelatin-bromide emulsion. Available in standard formats, the plate thus obtained could be used in any monoscopic or stereoscopic photographic chamber. Its only constraints : a yellow filter had to be placed over the lens to reduce the daylight dominant blue, an average exposure time of 1 second and inverted positioning of the plate in the camera, i.e. with the glass on the lens side so that lights rays first passed through the colored starch before exposing the emulsion. As a result, light rays reflected by the color subject crossed the starch layer to a lesser or greater degree depending on the relative color complementarity of the grains in its path and exposed the emulsion with varying intensity. Once the plate had been developed, a color image in the true colors of the starch grains which remained visible through the emulsion could be viewed by looking through the plate as a transparency or by projecting it as a color slide. For more scientific informations, consult the excellent Jim Scruggs' website about color theory.

Madeleine, Suzanne et Andrée à travers les vignes en 1908
Plaque Autochrome Lumière 9 x 12 cm

In truth, the resulting colored effect does not truly mirror reality, rather it represents its interpretation in pastel hues enhanced by the transparency of the support. However, it is precisely this interpretation which places a value on these images, which in fact lie mid-way between photography and painting not only due to the pictorial effect caused by the discernable granularity of the potato starch and its color range, but also resulting from the choice of subjects imposed by an exposure time sufficiently long to record a human being’s pose but not his movement. In consequence, this somewhat static picture is close to a painting : it is not a snapshot, but a reproduction of a composed fixed moment in time, illuminated by an impression, a feeling of color caused by multiple touches of pigment so delicately applied by light’s paintbrush. It is this specific property which helps to give an autochrome (a true pictorial photograph) such a special emotional and aesthetic value, although it could be qualified as " imperfection " when viewed strictly from the standpoint of progress in relation to photographic techniques.

Miroir d’eau - Plaque Autochrome Lumière 9 x 12 cm

Filmcolor (supplied in film format), which appeared in 1932, was the equivalent on film of the heavy fragile glass autochrome plate, which was soon abandoned. Then came " Ultra-fast Filmcolor " and " Ultra-fast Lumicolor " (rolled film) featuring emulsions 12 times faster and which at last allowed moving or shaded subjects to be photographed in color. Louis Lumière then attempted to apply the autochrome process to film-making. He undertook numerous trials in particular during the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, which could have provided an alternative to Technicolor then booming in the United States, but no commercial development resulted perhaps because of the Second World War. In photography, the autochrome process did not sustain the launching of Kodachrome (1935) and Agfacolor (1936), both of which were better suited to reduced format transparencies, such as the 6x6 and the 24x36, and were soon followed by the Agfacolor negative version, which popularized color prints on photographic paper.

Nature morte avec fruits - Plaque Autochrome Lumière 18 x 24 cm

Thanks to thousands of pictures taken by both amateur and professional autochrome photographers and which are conserved in particular at the Centre Albert Kahn, the Société Française de Photographie, the Institut Lumière and at the Library of Congress, the colors of the first third of the 20th-century have reached us almost intact. Both through the retrospective view it offers us and through its formal qualities, the unique and centennial Lumière autochrome process has enabled the founding of a true and unmatched photographic heritage throughout the world.

Madeleine et Andrée, nièce et fille d’Auguste Lumière, en 1910
Plaque Autochrome Lumière 18x24 cm
La baie de Garavan à Menton - Plaque Autochrome Lumière 13 x 18 cm