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AutochromesWithout a doubt, the most important American venue for the distribution of autochrome imagery in the United States was within the pages of the National Geographic Magazine. Though often dismissed as pedestrian, middlebrow, and indeed, racist by the serious art/photo historian, nevertheless its photo essays have been seen and, to a certain extent, emulated by millions. Such popularity has been known, at least among certain circles, to breed contempt. That many of the names of it’s early autochromists are now obscure and unknown even among the cognoscenti of the photographic market does not diminish the fact that these were once some of the most famous names in all of photography.
The first "color" to appear in the National Geographic Magazine was a 24 page series of hand-painted scenes taken in China and Korea. The hand tinting was the work of a Japanese artist. The series appeared in the November 1910 issue. However, the first autochrome to have been published in the National Geographic was in the July issue of 1914, just prior to the start of the First World War. The plate was titled: "A Ghent Flower Garden" by Paul G. Guilumette. The caption to the photograph read, "The picture makes one wonder which the more to admire - the beauty of the flower or the power of the camera." Two years later in the April 1916 issue, the first true autochrome series of color photography appeared in the National Geographic Magazine. This was a series that included twenty-three autochromes by frequent National Geographic contributor Franklin Price Knott. One of the plates published from that first series, "The Garden of Kama," is actually an autochrome of the dancers Ruth St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn.
The post-World War I era of color photography commenced in March 1921 with Helen Messinger Murdoch’s eight autochromes of India and Ceylon that accompanied Sir Ross Smith’s article, "From London to Australia by Aeroplane. Murdoch thus became the first woman to have published a color photograph in the National Geographic.
From that point on, color photography, especially autochrome photography, became a regular feature of the National Geographic Magazine. However, it was not until September, 1927 that color was included in every issue of the magazine and nearly all of that color was produced on Lumiere autochrome plates. Between 1914 and 1938, the National Geographic published 2,355 autochromes...far more than any other journal.
In terms of the photographers that did work for the National Geographic, it’s worth noting that of the 1,818 autochromes that appeared in the magazine between 1921 thru 1930, nearly 94% of the plates published were made by only 10 photographers. These included the French photographer Gervais Courtellemont, who, of course, was also employed by Albert Kahn in his Archives of the Planet (1910-1931); Hans Hildenbrand, and Wilhelm Tobien in Germany, Gustav Heurlin in Sweden, and Luigi Pellerano in Italy. Pellerano, whose 41 autochromes appeared in the magazine between 1925 and 1927, was the author of a 500 page how-to autochrome manual, L’autocromista e la Practica Elementare dell Fotografia a Colori written in 1914. Hildenbrand published over 150 autochromes in the pages of the magazine though over 700 of his autochromes remain in the files of the National Geographic. This is all that remains of Hildenbrand’s work since the majority of his autochromes were destroyed during the bombing of Stuttgart in 1944. As a general rule, these photographers, working independent of each other, would develop their autochromes in the field and then send the glass plates carefully packed in wooden crates by steamer ships to New York. Most of these autochromists never saw the inside of the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.
In addition, several individuals were on staff with the National Geographic. These included Maynard Owen Williams, Edwin L. Wisherd who would eventually run Geographic’s photo lab, and Clifton Adams.
Fred Payne Clatworthy, one of Geographic’s illustrations editor Franklin Fisher’s favorite independent autochromist, specialized in scenic autochromes of the West. Clatworthy owned and operated a photo studio in Rocky Mountain National Park. Though Clatworthy enjoyed some of the benefits of having his work published in the National Geographic, he did not especially appreciate the low monetary remuneration he received upon publication. For his first series of sixteen autochromes used in his April 1923 article, " Western Views in the Land of the Best," Clatworthy had been paid the grand total of $160.00. As a result, Clatworthy did not submit any further autochromes to the National Geographic for several years.
Eventually, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the magazine’s publisher intervened in Oct., 1928. He noted that Clatworthy had been paid an average of "$10 per page." He wrote to Fisher, "Several years passed and (Clatworthy) submitted nothing. Finally he called one day and I inquired why he had not sent in any photographs, and he replied that the amount of the honorarium you (Fisher ) offered him would not pay his expenses. I therefore made him an offer of $1,000 for a series of 16 full-page negatives satisfactory to us, and within a few months he submitted a remarkable series that we printed in our June 1928 number, entitled "Photographing the West in Colors."
Grosvenor further noted that, "This series of Clatworthy cost us $62.50 per original picture. The sum paid was enough to enable Clatworthy to recoup his actual expenses in making the pictures, but it was not sufficient to enable him to make a financial profit. I consider, however, that it was a fair price, as the great reputation he obtained from this series increases the popular demand for his lectures and the fees he obtains from these lectures."
Clatworthy eventually published 6 different series in the National Geographic, the last in 1934 by which point the autochrome was being used much more sparingly than was the case just four years earlier. To compare, in 1930, National Geographic published 1,328 black-and-white images compared to 366 Lumiere autochrome plates and 39 Finlay Color, which was fairly new on the scene at that time. However, by 1935, Geographic published 1,277 black-and-whites compared to just 72 autochromes and 231 Finlay Color, which had the advantage of being more sensitive to light and therefore "faster." In 1938 the first Kodachrome appeared in the magazine. Only three Lumiere plates were published that year versus 222 Finlays, 69 Dufay’s, and 18 Agfacolors. One year later in 1939, the magazine published 8 autochromes, 47 Finlay’s, 93 Dufay’s, 11 Agfacolors and 317 Kodachrome’s. After 1941, the National Geographic Magazine only published autochromes in special commerative issues.
© Mark Jacobs - 2006