Autochrome Stereoviews

Autochrome Stereoviews

I wanted to share some amateur autochrome stereoviews from my collection so anyone unfamiliar with the process can see how beautiful they are.

The Autochrome is a direct positive colour photography process invented by the Lumière brothers in France and presented to the world in 1904. It was the first commercially successful colour-photography process, however, it was by no means the first attempt at inventing coloured photographs. There is quite a nice article on the history of colour photography on the Science and Media Museum website; please note though that there are several processes that aren’t mentioned, so it isn’t definitive.

Autochrome plates were created by coating a sheet of glass with microscopic potato starch grains dyed red, green, and blue – approx. 4 million per square inch. Carbon or lamp black was applied over the plate, filling in the spaces around the starch grains, the whole plate was flattened and then a panchromatic silver gelatin emulsion was applied over the colour screen. As the photograph is taken light passes through the colour starch grain filters to the photographic emulsion. The plate is then processed to produce a positive transparency. The light passing through the coloured starch grains combines to recreate a full-colour image of the original subject.

The plates themselves (and therefore the camera) are quite small, about 13 x 5.9 cm. You can tell the camera used to make these autochrome stereoviews was binocular as the left and right images show no differences in movement between them. In the fourth autochrome, you can actually see the shadow of this camera.

Autochrome plates were manufactured in different sizes, so most cameras that were available at the time could use them. This played a big part in their commercial success. The plates, however, required quite a long exposure time because a yellow filter was needed to correct the excessive blue sensitivity of the plate. The photographer also had to make sure the plate was the correct way around in the camera.

The easiest way to view Autochrome Stereoviews (depending on their format) is with a Brewster-style, or a Verascope-style, stereoscope with a ground-glass backing, facing a light source. A lightbox to illuminate them from behind is also a good way. You can also share them with others by scanning them as you would glass slides, however, I don’t think it’s as magical as seeing the colours for yourself in a viewer. The stereo autochromes in this post, for example, are much duller than in real life.

Recently there have been experiments by Peter Norman, a technician at the National Portrait Gallery, to recreate the Lumiere Autochrome process. The process isn’t straight forward and you can see the project and results on this Instagram page: @theautochromeproject.

I find Autochromes are very evocative of the period, not least because they are mostly taken by amateurs of everyday life. They have a magical grainy quality and dream-like colours, very much like impressionist paintings.

It’s often quite expensive to find good quality, nicely coloured autochromes stereoviews, but when you have seen one, you’ll definitely want to see more!

Most of the ones I’m sharing were taken by an unnamed amateur photographer, with an unusual circular format. The last image of the roses is the first autochrome I collected and is also my favourite because the quality is fantastic. They are quite dark and have lots of artefacts, so I’ve edited them slightly in Photoshop for better viewing.

There are definitely better examples of autochromes available. It’s worth doing a Google search as many Museums and Archives are currently digitising their collections and new views appear frequently.


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