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AutochromesNobody has written better than John Wood on the relationship between Art and the Autochrome: Here are some excerpts of his fascinating book: "The Art of the Autochrome, The Birth of Photography"
The inherent beauty of the autochrome makes it difficult at times to distinguish an autochrome that is merely beautiful from one that is a conscious work of art. It is as if the process itself had the power to confer aesthetic legitimacy on whatever was being photographed. There are, of course, exceptions, but most autochromes do seem to have the authority of art – that power to rivet our gaze and demand of our eyes that they return again and again, and the power to reward those returns with pleasure and insight. It would be interesting to know what it is about the authochrome that so compels, to know why that soft glow of suggestion, of elegant ladies in lace, of nuance and the Monet-haze of dream is so emotionally gripping, so psychologically arresting. It is as if they possess a kind of proustian power, an ability to waken in us and summon up our collective memory – or possibly a collective mythology – of a gentler past - Structures of Recollection, P1
…Stieglitz said, "Soon the world will be color-mad, and Lumière will be responsible….The Lumières….have given the world a process which in history will rank with the startling and wonderful inventions of those two other Frenchmen, Daguerre and Nièpce."
Coburn wrote Stieglitz to exclaim, "I too have the color fever badly and have a number of things that I am simply in raptures over." A few weeks later Coburn gave an interview in which he stated "It’s just the greatest thing that’s ever happened to photography".
And Steichen declared "I have no medium that can give me colour of such wonderful luminosity as the Autochrome plate. One must go to stained glass for such colour resonance, as the palette and canvas are a dull and lifeless medium in comparaison."
Such rapturous statements were not at all uncommon, and everyone seemed to have something to say about the autochrome…..The excitement that color photography initially inspired was probably best summed up by J. Nilsen Laurvik, an art critic and photographer who had his own exhibition of autochromes at Stieglitz’s Little Galleries in 1909 and later became director of the San Francisco Museum of Art. He wrote, "In short, color-photography marks the beginning of a new and thoroughly scientific study of color that will, no doubt, revolutionize all forms of color processes as well as exert a strong influence on the art of painting."…
… In the hands of a kuhn, a Steichen, a Coburn, or one of the other Symbolist masters, many of those same mysteries, the same introspection, and the same beauty of their work on paper blazed out, but now in color. Speaking of this phenomenon, which, of course, is the very mystery of art and of art’s mastery, Stieglitz wrote, "Why this should be so in a mechanical process… is one of those phenomena not yet explained, but still understood by some…Those who have seen the Steichen pictures are all of one opinion…"
Though the autochrome in a practiced Symbolist’s hands was capable of effects approaching those of other Symbolist works, its inherent straightness made it the bridge between prewar and postwar photography, the link between the early issues of Camera Work and its final issues. It may even have helped convert some photographers to modernism. Few photographers, if any, embraced Symbolism more fervently than George Seeley, yet he produced a body of work in autochrome that bears no similarity to his previous work. It is as if the autochrome drove him toward realism. And though the work of many of the other major photographers of the period also changed, probably as much in response to Symbolism’s postwar irrelevance as to anything else, it is likely that the autochrome and the "color fever" it generated played a greater role than we have credited them with shaping photography’s new direction. Color Fever, p 9,10, 15,16
The breakdown of light and the suggestion of the veil appears to be a signal for a different kind of looking than we normally perform, a kind of looking that is accompanied by an inherent an positive emotional response to what we see. I earlier suggested that the "straightness" of the autochrome made it one of the various bridges into modernism. That straightness fused to the still life, to the world of relatively dateless, pure objects produced its own kind of new objectivity, and that effect yoked to broken light – clear, precise, but diffused – produced images that caught the tensions of the modern world but were tempered by deep, positive emotional responses. That is the real magic of the autochrome….
Color Triumphant p41
The Art of the Autochrome, The Birth of Color Photography – John Wood – University of Iowa press, Iowa City – 1993.