Mama Don’t Take My Autochrome Away

4 comments May 21st, 2007at 11:17am Posted by Eli

Color photo by Edward Steichen. From 1908.

At first glance the two pictures seem to be gorgeous anachronisms, full-color blasts from the black-and-white world of 1908, the year Ford introduced the Model T and Theodore Roosevelt was nearing the end of his second term.

But they are genuine products of their time, rare ones, among the few surviving masterpieces from the earliest days of color photography, made using a process developed by the Lumière brothers in France and imported to the United States by the photographer Edward Steichen a century ago this year. They were taken by Steichen, probably in Buffalo, and are thought to be portraits of Charlotte Spaulding, a friend and student who became his luminous subject for the portraits, which resemble pointillist miniatures on glass.


Eastman House has a substantial collection of Steichen works, including 22 of the same kind of color photographs, known as autochromes. But when Anthony Bannon, the museum’s director, received a call last summer from a Buffalo lawyer, who said his client, Charlotte Albright, a 96-year-old painter, wanted to donate three examples of what were probably antique glass-plate negatives, Mr. Bannon assumed they were the works of her mother, Charlotte Spaulding.


Mr. Bannon said that because the photographs had sat for so long out of the light, their colors remained particularly vivid. “They’re in just as perfect a shape as you could expect from something from almost a century ago,” he said.

Autochromes are positive images, meaning they are unique and not negatives that can be used to create prints. They were made using a complex process in which tiny dyed grains of potato starch were spread across a piece of glass and light was passed through them to a photo-sensitive plate.

The three colors of the starch grains — bright blue-violet, bright orange-red and Kelly green — worked together to produce a wide range of realistic-looking colors, in the same way that combinations of red, blue and green dots produce a color-television picture.

“If you did it right, you had the basic colors you were looking at when you took the picture,” said Mark Osterman, the photographic-process historian at Eastman House.

Very, very cool.

Entry Filed under: Art/Architecture,Coolness


  • 1. V.  |  May 21st, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    That’s beautiful.

  • 2. Interrobang  |  May 21st, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    I’m quite partial to the Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs, myself.

  • 3. Eli  |  May 22nd, 2007 at 7:19 am

    Cool! Makes perfect sense, although it sounds pretty labor-intensive…

  • 4. Ol'Froth  |  May 22nd, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    I saw an autochrom photo of a Niueport 17 a few years agot. Stunning.

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