Autochromes

John B. Trevor, Emily Winthrop, 1910

John B. Trevor, John B. Trevor and Bronson Trevor, ca. 1912

John B. Trevor, Mrs. Lucius K. Wilmerding, ca. 1916

John B. Trevor, Mrs. John B. Trevor, ca. 1914

The autochrome process is the first successful method for producing color photographs. John B. Trevor’s portrait of Emily Winthrop from 1910 is a classic direct-confrontation portrait of the subject. The muted skin tones and bits of red highlights that detail her expression are examples of the autochrome’s delicate Impressionist-like colors and astonishing evidence of a forgotten process of the past.

In 1907 Auguste and Louis Lumiere patented the first commercially successful color process, which they called Autochrome Lumiere. It involved glass plates, a backlight, snoot and, mysteriously, potato starch. This combination revolutionized photography. At first glance, the graininess of the autochrome resembles today’s undesirable digital noise. But it’s actually the potato starch granules in a three-color matrix. These small dots of orange-red, green, and violet-blue give the image a cloudy, reflective porthole into the past.

The autochrome process uses glass plates that where coated with a layer of potato starch mixed with color dyes that filtered light before it was recorded on the emulsion. It surrendered a grainy, positive image of quiet pastels on a glass plate. The sensitized autochrome plate lasted only a few weeks. The emulsion was slow, exposures were necessarily long and the developing process, often done in the field, was difficult.

Today autochromes are more fragile and few in number, almost impossible to exhibit, and largely forgotten in the history of photography. Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Steichen, just to name a few, adopted autochrome plates in their practices. Steiglitz said, “Soon the world will be color-made, and the Lumiere will be responsible. The Lumieres have given the world a process which in history will rank with the startling and wonderful inventions of those two other Frenchmen, Daguerre and Niepce.”

Like the daguerreotype and tintype, the autochrome was immune to any manipulation. One could make a simply exposure and developed the plate, which was a small exclusive object, impossible to enlarge, difficult to illuminate. The autochrome is simple in concept but impossible to comprehend; how could such simple components could produce such a beautiful relict of the past? It is hard to believe that these stained glass windows of the photographic chapel truly ever existed.

J. B Trevor, Mrs. John B. Trevor, ca. 1914

John B. Trevor (1878–1956) was an American lawyer and one of the most influential unelected officials active in the Immigration Act of 1924. After World War I, Trevor was a captain in a military intelligence unit in the U.S. Army and was decorated as Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneur for his assistance to the French Army. A passionate amateur photographer, Trevor discovered Autochrome Lumiere plates in 1907 while vacationing in France. ICP’s collection of Trevor’s autochromes depicts his family, friends and curios he collected from his many vacations aboard. This collection is a brilliant observation of a lifestyle well forgotten but preserved in such a magnificent process.

Brian Paumier, ICP-Bard MFA, 2012

Read more about John B. Trevor’s politics and anti-immigration activities here.

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2 Responses to Autochromes

  1. This bio is very misleading as few people today are aware of the consequences of the Immigration Act of 1924. It should be pointed out Trevor was an antisemitic, racist, who became pro-Nazi. If he had his way there would be no ICP as Capa would not have been allowed into the USA. The link you provide for additional information does not make sense as the context for it is not provided.

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