By Lynn McLanahan
80th Anniversary: Private Collections Presented by the Albert Kahn Foundation and The Auto-chromes of the French Society of Photography, Salon d'Automne, Grand Palais.
I was so excited anticipating this exhibition that my first reaction on discovering there were no original autochromes, only reproductions, was extreme disappointment. This color process was presented by the Lumiere Brothers to the Academy of Sciences in Paris in May of I904. One doesn't see many of these today because, in addition to being rare, they are extremely fragile and are hardly ever exhibited. An auto-chrome is a positive color print in which dyed particles of starch are sandwiched between two pieces of glass. As I began to walk through the 80th Anniversary exhibition, my disappointment soon dissolved. The reproductions on paper were of extremely high quality and conveyed the subtly colored grains of starch beautifully. It is hard to convey the magic of an autochrome, but the softness of the colors and the way in which certain colors leap in front of others can perhaps be compared to Seurat's pointilist style in painting. The reproductions held onto this magic.
Though there were a number of images by the Lumiere Brothers, the other photographers represented were not big names: Andre Adret, Paul Carenco, Serge Clin, Jeanne Deves, and Yves Louvet among them.
The selection of images illustrated a refreshingly unpretentious and almost naive snapshot sensibility. The subjects ranged from family picnics, still lifes, portraits, and nudes, to scenes like the one of a man resting after changing a flat tire: I readily confess to being seduced by the nostalgia. The photographers were also obviously having fun with being able to photograph color for the first time; the
image of a woman in a pink dress, pink shawl, standing on a ladder next to a pink parasol, picking a pink flower from a tree is an obvious example. Hooray for Albert Kahn (whose collection includes 72,000 autochromes) for making such magical ventures in time possible.
A smaller exhibition of reproductions of autochromes accompanied the 80th Anniversary exhibition. Though these autochromes were also made at the turn of the century, the works were very different in style. Composed of works by members of La Société Française de Photographie, the images reflect their struggle to have photography accepted as an art form. They looked to painting for their subject matter and used many a familiar cliche. Autochromes, with their soft colors and grainy quality, can look like pastels or paintings (if you squint your eyes), in much the same way a gum bichromate print can. These photographers were more interested in making photographs that looked like paintings than using the photographic process to create something new. This trend was quite common and this particular group of photographers were by no means alone in their pursuit.
However, comparing their work to that in the 80th Anniversary exhibition, flat cliches cannot compare to the freshness of vision of those willing to experiment, and even play a bit with their cameras.