Duck Duck Book

60 – dawn of the color photograph
04.7.2009, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

The dawn of the color photograph : Albert Kahn’s archives of the planet / David Okuefuna.
Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2008.
[MCL call number: 779.092 K12o 2008: six copies, no holds]

In the first few years of the 20th century, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière invented autochrome photography, a simple, inexpensive method for making color photographs with a standard glass-negative camera (the sort used by professionals at the time).  The autochrome was a radical development — other color photography techniques existed, but they were expensive, complicated, and/or cumbersome.

Inspired in part by this technological development, French banker, pacifist, and philanthropist Albert Kahn conceived of an ambitious project — he recruited and financed professional photographers, provided them with autochrome plates and other equipment, and sent them around the world to photograph everyday life.   From 1908 through the 1930s, these photographers recorded world events, wars (most notably the First World War), political change, religious practice, commonplace cultural events, national festivals, people at work, and of course the landscape of houses, streets, neighborhoods, cities, agricultural land, and the natural world.  The project was named The Archives of the Planet, and eventually grew to more than 72,000 images.

The Archive’s photographers traveled far and wide, to teeny villages as well as important cities in nearly every corner of the world, and their work captures a world that is roughly a century old.  European imperialism, the massive bombing campaigns of the Second World War, the spread of Western popular culture, industrialization, the Cold War, pollution, globalization and many other forces have made changes both to our cultural and physical geography.  The Dawn of the Color Photograph collects hundreds of these pictures and presents them in a geographical arrangement, with David Okuefuna’s meticulous captions showing not only where and what is portrayed in each image, but often explaining how history has treated the buildings, cities, cultural traditions, and communities captured therein.  It’s easier to understand what’s in the pictures with this bit of explication — at times Okuefuna reads quite a lot into the images, making assessments of people’s state of mind from their expressions, for example, but on the whole his captions are helpful and illustrative.

But the pictures themselves are frankly astonishing.  The autochrome process* produces very different images than the color photographs we’re used to.  The images are muted and romantic looking; a bit grainy.  Even scenes that are brightly lit with full sunlight do not seem harsh – colors meld a little, and look more harmonious than they generally do in life.  Autochromes require a long exposure time, so some of the images are clearly posed – and those that are not often include blurred shapes where people or animals moved during the exposure.  The strange colors and long exposure combine to give the photographs a well-put-together look, a bit like theater promotion stills or fashion magazine shots.  And yet most of the images are startlingly natural looking.  The majority capture scenes of life as it is lived — marketplaces, people at work, street scenes — most of these seem as natural as they would captured in a fraction of a modern second by an amateur with a Brownie or an iPhone.

I looked through The Dawn of the Color Photograph several times before I felt ready to write about it.  The first time, I simply flipped through and looked at the pictures.  The second time, I read the introduction and the essays at the beginning of each chapter, and looked at the photographs more carefully.  The third time, I went through the whole book and read each photograph caption.  The fourth time, I flipped through again and revisited the images which had struck me most.  I am not sure that I am done; I’m not sure I have seen even a substantial part of what is available to see in this collection of images.  These pictures are very energetic and lifelike, and even though the people are mostly dead, many of the buildings and communities are scattered or destroyed, and the world is unalterably changed by time and other forces, these people and places do not seem gone.  They seem real, alive, present.  The people seem human, their cultures important, their habits interesting, their perspectives valuable.  I think this is the magic that Albert Kahn was hoping to create.

* * *

* There is an appendix explaining the technical aspects of the autochrome process, which helps illuminate why the images look the way they do — and of course it’s also interesting because autochromes work so very differently than the photographic processes we typically use today.


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: