Colourful new discoveries from the early days of photography, 1980 | Photography


A nude woman reclines on a tumble of fabric, a flower in her hair and bracelet on her wrist, frankly challenging the viewer with her gaze. It’s almost Manet’s Olympia, but not quite. This photograph is an Autochrome, the process invented by Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1904 and explored by the Observer Magazine on 2 November 1980, with recently unearthed images from the French Photographic Society.

Autochrome was an early answer to frustration at the limitations of photography in capturing the colour and complexity of real life and its secret was an ‘unlikely ingredient’: potato starch. ‘Minute grains of starch were dyed in primary colours, carefully mixed and held on a glass plate with silver bromide solution.’

It was instantly popular and the Lumière brothers struggled to meet demand, particularly from the Pictorialists, pioneers who viewed photography as an art form full of possibility rather than a documentary process. They appreciated Autochrome as it ‘gave an effect of shimmering colour reminiscent of that achieved by the most laborious Impressionist techniques – a kind of painless Pointillism’.

The influence of the Impressionists and their forebears does shimmer through these dreamy, painterly images. A white-shirted worker bending in a hayfield feels composed by Millet, painted by Morisot. Women wash clothes on a sun-dappled riverbank, one cross-legged girl in red staring curiously at the camera, in the kind of scene beloved of Pissarro.

Extra-long exposure times – 30 times longer than black and white – meant discomfort was an inevitable part of the process: a woman in a wide-brimmed hat topped with an extravagantly large and droopy red flower perches uneasily on the edge of a cornfield holding a bouquet of wildflowers. And there’s a reminder that the ‘tranquil beauty’ and ease of this gilded fin-de-siècle came at a human price: against the bulk of a dresser filled with blue and white plates, a maid in a blue apron droops in sleep, feather duster falling from her hand.