In 1839, when photographs were seen for the first time, they were regarded with a sense of wonder. However, this amazement was soon tempered by disappointment. How could a process that captured the forms of nature with such exquisite detail, fail so dismally to record its colors? The search for a practical process of color photography soon became photography’s “Holy Grail”. Yet, while scientists, businessmen and experimenters grappled with the problem, the public became impatient. Photographers, eager to give their customers what they wanted, soon took the matter into their own hands - literally and began to add color to their monochrome images. In the right, skilled hands, effects of great subtlety and beauty could be achieved. Even at it’s very best, however, hand-coloring remained an arbitrary and ultimately unsatisfactory solution. What was desired was a purely photographic process that would transform photography from being, in W.H.F. Talbot’s famous phrase, “The Pencil of Nature” to “The Paintbrush of Nature”.
However, before color could be faithfully reproduced, the nature of light had first to be clearly understood. The scientific investigation of light and color had begun in the seventeenth century when Sir Isaac Newton famously split sunlight using a prism to show that it was actually a combination of the seven colors of the spectrum. Nearly 200 years later, in 1861, James Clerk Maxwell, conducted an experiment to prove that all colors can be reproduced through mixing red, green and blue light. Maxwell made three separate magic lantern-slides of a piece of tartan ribbon, through red, green and blue filters. These slides were then projected through the same filters using three separate magic lanterns. When the three images were carefully superimposed, they combined to produce a single colored image, which was a recognizable reproduction of the original subject. Known as additive color synthesis, this principle was to form the basis of the Autochrome process.
However, while the fundamental theory may have been understood, a practical method of color photography remained elusive. Several pioneers did succeed in making color photographs but their processes were complex, impractical and not commercially viable. Despite its theoretical importance, their work was to be of limited practical value because the photographic emulsions of the time were limited in their color sensitivity. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the first so-called “panchromatic” plates, sensitive to all colors, were produced. Now, at last, the way lay clear for the invention of the first practicable method of color photography - the Autochrome process, invented in France by Augusté and Louis Lumiére.
The Lumiére brothers are best known as film pioneers with their invention of the cinématographe in 1895. However, they had also been experimenting with color photography for several years. In 1904, they presented the results of their work to the French Académie des Sciences. Three years later they had perfected their process and had begun the commercial manufacture of Autochrome plates. On 10 June 1907, the first public demonstration of their process took place at the offices of the French newspaper L‘Illustration. The event was a triumph.
News of the discovery spread quickly and critical response was rapturous. Upon seeing his first Autochrome, for example, the eminent photographer, Alfred Stieglitz could scarcely contain his enthusiasm: “The possibilities of the process seem to be unlimited and soon the world will be color-mad, and Lumiére will be responsible”.
The manufacture of Autochrome plates, undertaken at the Lumiére factory in Lyon, was a complex industrial process. First, transparent starch grains were passed through a series of sieves to isolate grains between ten and fifteen microns (thousandths of a millimeter) in diameter. Many different types of starch were tried, but the humble potato was found to