PERCEIVE: New ways of thinking about autochromes

In 2019, the V&A embarked on a project to scope, catalogue, conserve, and digitise the substantial and internationally significant collection of over 2000 autochrome plates. This major project informed the publication Colour Mania: Photographing the World in Autochrome, released 2022.

Now, the V&A’s collection of autochromes are a focus of research by PERCEIVE (Perceptive Enhanced Realities of Coloured collEctions through AI and Virtual Experiences), a project funded by the UKRI and involving close collaboration with many international partners. Following the work completed in 2019, we are looking at how recent digital technologies and developments can enable a greater understanding of the autochrome’s materiality, and suggest new approaches to understanding these fragile objects.

But what is an autochrome?

The autochrome was a pioneering colour photography process, invented by the French Lumière Brothers, Auguste and Louis more than a century ago. Better known for their work on moving pictures, the Lumière Brothers’ inventions spanned medicine, science, cinema, and photography. After an extended period of refinement following a 1903 patent, the autochrome was publicly released in 1907 to a jubilant reception.  

The autochrome process was acclaimed for its simplicity and production of brilliant, ‘true’ colour images. Prior to the advent of the autochrome, a range of colour photography processes were invented – but were complicated, requiring multiple negatives or advanced scientific knowledge to produce successful plates. In contrast, autochromes could be used in a standard plate camera, and the entire process to produce a positive, colour photograph involved only one plate.  

Autochromes comprise a glass base, on top of which sits a sticky varnish layer to adhere a colour filter featuring millions of potato starch granules dyed red, green and blue-violet. A layer of photosensitive silver emulsion sits on top of the colour filter. To ensure the safety of the finished work, a protective layer of glass, often called cover glass, was bound to the autochrome plate. In the final positive colour photograph, your eye blends the red, green and blue-violet granules to produce the colours of the original scene photographed.

At first glance, autochromes look like a plain, black piece of glass – this dark appearance being the result of the multiple layers of varnish, emulsion and granules.

Example of autochrome plate without backlighting. The plate shows signs of delamination.

It is only when you illuminate an autochrome from the back that you can see the colour image.

Ironically, while requiring illumination to be viewed, autochromes are also extremely light sensitive, and the dyes can fade if they are exposed to too much light.

For these reasons, we developed specific viewing conditions to minimise our autochromes’ exposure to light. Autochromes should only be viewed in a space where the light levels can be controlled: doors should be closed, lighting controlled and blinds shut. Light levels should be as low as possible and exposure time should be minimal.

In our practice, we worked in a room with the doors closed, blinds lowered and lights off. We set up a dimmable light box and measured the light level, setting the light box to a lux level of 20. We viewed each autochrome on the light box for no more than a minute, using their individual paper storage envelopes as an additional barrier between object and light box surface where possible. Given the fragility of the plates, it meant we had to work quickly, efficiently, and also carefully, especially because of the low light levels.

Conservator Stephanie Jamieson looks at an autochrome plate in controlled conditions.

Much of our early work involved identifying autochromes in the collection – which could be a difficult process.

The V&A has an extensive and impressive colour photography collection that includes many early colour photography processes. Many of these processes were on glass plates, and it can therefore be hard to determine if a work is an autochrome without magnification (with a loupe or microscope). Through magnification, you are able to see the granular quality of the potato starch particles, a clear indication of an autochrome. During our work, many plates previously identified as autochromes were found to be other processes.

An enlargement of the colour screen of an autochrome plate, photograph by F. A. Paneth, 1912, Museum no. RPS.1464-2020 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Using a loupe to magnify the autochrome plate

Under magnification, the unique materiality of the autochrome is revealed. Circular starch granules in their 1000s become visible, which give autochromes their unique painterly, almost Pointillist quality. Unfortunately, the dyes used in the production of autochrome have a fugitive nature – a propensity to fade or change – and are the main reason autochromes are so light sensitive.

To identify autochromes, we look for the mosaic of coloured granules.

This compares to other processes, which have a different aesthetic when magnified. The Paget process (patented 1912), for instance, when magnified looks like a checkerboard.

Using a loupe to magnify the image. The grid pattern makes clear this is a Paget plate

The autochrome was commercially available from in 1907, prior to the advent of the German Agfa-Farbenplatte, or Agfa plate, which was released in 1916 and later became available in Britain following the conclusion of Word War I. Under magnification, Agfa plates look very similar to the autochrome.

We were often able to identify Agfa plates based on their identifiable green cast, as shown in this image of a periodic table taken by F. A. Paneth:

Periodic system of the elements, photograph by F. A. Paneth, 1929 – 33. Museum no. RPS.1536-2020 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

He also photographed the table with an autochrome plate:

Periodic system of the elements, photography by  F. A. Paneth, 1929 – 33. Museum no. RPS.1534-2020 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However, badly processed autochromes can also have a green cast, and therefore we often had to return to the original paperwork and archival sources to verify which works were Agfa plates compared to autochromes.

This gives you an idea of our working and identification practice, and of the procedures we put in place to ensure the safety of the V&A autochrome collection. Over the course of a year, we catalogued over 2,000 autochromes and digitised 1,000 plates. These are now available via the V&A’s Explore the Collections, and a selection feature in the Colour Mania book. Our work sought to make these rare, fragile and remarkable early colour photographs available to the widest possible audience, and we continue this work through the PERCEIVE project.

Our work continues.

For more information see the research project page on the V&A website.

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