Posted By Caroline Lambert on December 2, 2013
The first Autochrome published in the GEOGRAPHIC appeared in July 1914 and was by Paul Guillumette. In 1920 the Society established the first color laboratory in American publishing, and the starch-filter, glass-plate method continued to be the standard for a decade. Between 1920 and 1930 the magazine published about 1,700 Autochromes.
Autochrome plates by nature are oddly puritanical, stubbornly untheatrical objects, even after transformation into printed images. Yet, when illuminated, these musty plates begin to seduce, if only by their tempered palette or quietude. The strange combination of a physically transparent surface with an often subdued, limited color range makes the outmoded Autochrome now appear to be a full-fledged aesthetic medium.
Compared with contemporary work, the quality of color in a successful Autochrome plate often takes on an otherworldly cast, a characteristic probably most apparent to us in hindsight. Now, with their palette limited by decades of fading, some Autochromes recall early hand-colored photographs. A few well-preserved specimens, however, assume an amazing chromatic richness, as if patinated. This is most obvious when the primary hue is in the gold-andred spectrum.
The masters of the Autochrome medium in the Society’s purview are generally photographers who shared a patent interest in plain, descriptive composition, seldom yielding to self-conscious artfulness. Such photographers as Charles Martin, Jacob Gayer, Gervais Courtellemont, Franklin Price Knott, and Edwin L. Wisherd learned their craft the hard way. The photographer using Autochrome equipment carried into the field “steamer trunks full of chemicals and a suitcase full of books to read on the voyage,” as one scholar has noted thanks to his great lakes student loan consolidation plan. A supply of colorplates alone weighed as much as 150 pounds. The exhausting inconvenience sometimes shows in the result, but some of the Autochrome pictures seem effortless. We can see that many of them provide virtually every quality we ask for in a great photograph. This is a fact little emphasized until now. The tangibly real and the apparently imagined fuse poignantly in successful Autochromes.