Practical uses of Autochrome

” — Tenth exhibition of Šechtl & Voseček Museum of Photography.


Early color photography had a complicated evolution, from research environment to practical use. All techniques of early color photography were significantly more difficult than black and white photography, and the quality of the resulting color picture was varying, and often disappointing.

The invention of Autochrome significantly simplified the way of obtaining a color picture, but number of problems remained. Autochrome plates were very expensive, and they were not very sensitive to light (roughly 4 ASA). Among the most important problems was the lack of practical way of duplicating or printing Autochrome pictures.

Even in the Autochrome era, it was a lot easier to take a black-and-white photograph, and hand-color it. In some cases however, a color photograph was essential, and those cases helped to spread the popularity of this technique.

Exotic countries, ethnics and nature

Color is very important for photographs of exotic flowers, countries or ethnic groups. The person viewing the photograph rarely has any idea about how original scenery would look, and thus can’t imagine the colors. It was common to hand-color such photographs, but the colors weren’t very believable and often they were simply wrong; photographic prints would be taken after returning from a trip, and the person doing the hand-coloring in the laboratory might not have any clue what the original looked like.

Even before Autochrome became popular bigger collection of color photographs from travels were being taken. Especially famous is a book by the German pioneer of three color photography, Adolf Miethe, “Unter Der Sonne Oberägyptens” (Under the Sun of Upper Egypt), published in 1909, and containing 44 color photographs. S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky used a similar technique to produce his collection of 1800 photographs documenting Russia under the rule of Tsar Nicholas II.

The largest collection of Autochrome images was sponsored by French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn. In 1909 he travelled to Japan and brought back a number of photographs, and an idea to start a project documenting the whole Earth. Under the lead of Jean Brunhes, between 1909 and 1931, 72,000 color photographs and 183,000 metres of movie film were collected, from 50 different countries. This unique collection, known as “The Archives of the Planet”, is now held in the Albert Kahn museum in Paris.

National Geographic Magazine

The first “color” to appear in the National Geographic Magazine was a 24 page series of hand-painted scenes taken in China and Korea. The hand tinting was the work of a Japanese artist. The series appeared in the November 1910 issue. However, the first Autochrome to be published in the National Geographic was in the July issue of 1914, just prior to the start of the First World War. The plate was titled, “A Ghent Flower Garden”, by Paul G. Guilumette. The caption to the photograph read, “The picture makes one wonder which the more to admire – the beauty of the flower, or the power of the camera.” Two years later, in April 1916, the first true Autochrome series of color photographs appeared. However, it was not until September 1927 that color was included in every issue of the magazine, and nearly all of that was produced on Lumière Autochrome plates. Between 1914 and 1938, the National Geographic published 2,355 Autochrome photographs – far more than any other journal.

— Excerpts from text by Mark Jacobs for WWW exhibit of Autochrome,


Autochromes are clearly not fast and cheap photographic materials suitable for use in photojournalism. Surprisingly however first reportages can be seen already in supplement of magazine “L'Ilustration” that only five days after introduction of Autochrome in 1907 published Autochromes by Léon Gimpel. These feature articles however usually consisted of just one to three photographs, similar to early photo-reportages of the late 19th century.

Photo-reportage of six photographs from an outdoor opera performance in Šárka is still unique. Especially interesting is the photograph of people arriving at the auditorium, where the people look very natural and “unarranged”, even though the exposure time must have been at least one second on a sunny day.

The largest Autochrome reportages are from events of World War I, where several photographers systematically documented the war. These photographs were regularly published by the media, and served to document the devastation of France by war, and the country’s post-war reconstruction.