Autochromes and Autochromists of WWI It probably comes as something of a surprise to the uninitiated to discover color photographs of World War II. If so, it probably comes as a shock when one discovers color photographs were made during World War I. Few of us living today have any direct experience or knowledge of World War I. Photographs supply our visual memory of the "Great War" to us. Almost all the photographs reproduced in history books, magazines, and newspapers, have been printed black-and-white.
The autochrome was the first widely accepted process for making documentary photographs in color. Indeed, so grand was the promise of color documentary photography, that the banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn dispatched photographers to over 50 countries from 1910-1931 to provide an accurate record of daily life as it was being lived at the beginning of the twentieth century.
There were, however, two major difficulties that prevented the immediate exploitation of color documentary photography. The first was the problem of color reproduction in printed media. There was no simple and, more importantly, inexpensive half-tone method for reproducing color photographs. This limited the use of autochromes to the largest magazines and journals. In France, the largest circulation belonged to the journal Lílllustration. On June 15, 1907, only five days after itís public introduction in Paris, Lílllustration published four autochromes by the photographer Leon Gimpel to illustrate an article Gimpel had written on the new method of color photography. Lílllustration thus became the first publication anywhere in the world to publish an autochrome in color. The January, 1908 edition of the U.S. magazine, The Century published two autochromes by Eduard J. Steichen - a portrait of Alfred Stieglitz and a portrait of Gertrude Kšsebier.
The second major drawback to the use of the autochrome in documentary photography concerned the sensitivity of the plate to light. While "instantaneous" photography became somewhat common during the 1890s, the autochrome was considerably less sensitive to light when compared to contemporary black-and-white emulsions, which was due to the use of its tri-color filter layer that absorbed a great deal of light. Consequently, it made real-time war photography impractical. Nevertheless, attempts were made to document the destruction the war caused as well as providing us with glimpses of military camp life.
The WW I photographers who worked in autochrome included Captain Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud, Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, Leon Gimpel, Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville, L. Aubert, Albert Samama-Chikli plus others whose names are now lost.
Jules Gervais-Courtellemont (1863-1931)
Gervais-Courtellemont was born in the province of Seine-et-Marne, near Paris, but grew up in Algeria. Courtellemont had a passion for the Orient and his autochromes cover his journeys to Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Spain, India, Morocco and China. In 1911, Courtellemont opened the "Palais de líautochromie" in Paris, which comprised an exhibition hall, studio, laboratory, and lecture hall with a seating capacity of 250. It was in this hall that Courtellemont would project his autochromes both of the Orient and, after 1914, of the war. These lectures proved to be so popular that Courtellemont issued a twelve part series later bound in book form called "The Battle of Marne" and later a four part series entitled "The Battle of Verdun." These are the first books ever published in color on war. Courtellemontís work displays a tight sense of composition, an acute awareness of the interplay of light on color, and a haunting familiarity of symbolism.
Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud (1866-1951)
The photo-historian Nadia Valla has written definitively on Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud and suffice to say here that Tournassoud was the Managing Director of the Photographic and Cinematographic Services of the Army, which reported to the Ministry of War. His 800 autochromes of the war reflect daily life of the barracks, portraits of soldiers, and horses of his regiment. Tournassoud was a master of constructed narrative photography or tableaux photography. His autochromes are reminiscent of a painter, with a great focus on light and composition. Indeed, though his work has been said to be the earliest war propaganda in color, it is probably more accurate to describe the best of his war work as "cinematic".
Leon Gimpel (1878-1948)
Perhaps the finest of all the autochromist has had the fewest words written about him. As noted earlier, Leon Gimpel was the first autochromist to have one of his images published in color. Gimpel was the instigator of the inauguration of the autochrome process held on June 10, 1907 in one of the rooms of the French newspaper Lílllustration. Gimpel produced many fine series in his long career with the autochrome. Perhaps the most superb images are the series he authored known as the Grenata Street Army. As the catalogue entry from a recent Australian exhibition on World War I color photography noted:
In 1915 Gimpel befriended a group of children from the Grenata Street neighborhood in Paris who had established their own "army". He began to visit them regularly on Sundays, helping them to build their arsenal from whatever was to hand, providing direction in "casting", and recording with his camera the armyís triumphs over the evil enemy, the Boche.
Gimpel was charmed by these children and came to know each of them well: the "chief", the eldest in the garrison; his friend, who was conscripted to play the unenviable role of the Boche; and PťpŤte, who was "small, slightly misshaped, rather scrofulous, looking somewhat like a gnome" but who nonetheless played the part of an ace aviator. At the end of each session, Gimpel would reward the troops with barley sugar, causing all to shout with one voice, "Long live the photograph!"
There is currently insufficient data to provide any kind of biographical information on the photographer L. Aubert. Because his identified autochromes are medical in nature, one can assume he may have been a military surgeon. His autochromes of post-mortems and of diseased organs perhaps represent the greatest incongruity between the beauty of the autochrome process and the grisly subject matter of death.
Fernand Cuville (1887-1927)
Fernand Cuville grew up in the Bordeaux region of France. Apparently trained as a musician, Cuville was introduced to the photographer and autochromist Auguste Leon. Both Leon and Cuville as well Castelnau would eventually join with Albert Kahn in producing the autochromes for the Archives of the Planet. During the war, Cuville worked for the Photographic Section of the Army, created in 1915, and which employed 15 operators. It carried out its photographic missions on the Western Front in locations such as Rheims and Soissons. Mustered out from the French army in July 1919, Cuville began his employment with Albert Kahnís "Archives of the Planet". There he photographed Versailles, Paris, England, as well as the rebuilding of the Marne, Meuse, Aisne, and Haut-Rhin. From 1919-1920, he photographed exclusively in the southwestern quarter of France (the Pyrenees, Charente-Maritime, the Gironde, Landes, and Haute-Garonne). Albert Kahn suffered financial difficulties in 1921 and Cuville was forced to find other means of employment.
Paul Castelnau (1880-1944)
Paul Castelnau studied geography at the Sorbonne. He was initially mobilized with the Geographical Service of the French Army, then with the Photographic Section. His wartime autochromes were initially taken along the Western front (the Champagne, Alsace, North, and Belgium) and after January 1918, Arabia, Palestine, Egypt and Cyprus. Along with Fernand Cuville, their autochromes covered the destruction, troop movements, and camp life. At warís end, Castelnau photographed the rebuilding of Aisne and the Marne. Castelnau received his thesis in 1920, and then joined with Cuville as a photographer/geographer for Albert Kahnís Archives of the Planet. In the mid-1920s Castelnau authored a documentary film on the life of termites. In about 1930 he became a surveyor. Castelnau was accused of being a collaborator and executed in June 1944 although the evidence has apparently never been clearly established.
Albert Samama-Chikli (Chikly) (1872-1933)
According to the film historian Luke McKernan, Albert Samama-Chikli, was a Tunisian Jew, who organized the first screenings of Lumiere films in a Tunis shop in 1897. A truly remarkable individual, Chikli is also credited with also introducing the first bicycle, telegraph and X-ray machine to Tunisia. However, he retained his interest in film and actually became a filmmaker in both Tunisia and France. During the WW I, Chikli filmed the French Army at Verdun in addition to his work with autochromes. Historian Gregor Murbach has identified the plates reproduced here as probably being taken by Chikli in early 1916 in Algeria and Tunisia. Murbach transcribed Chikliís reports and noted that Chikli mentioned the building of a train line in the desert by German prisoners as well as mentioning the snow, both of which can be seen in the autochromes.
After the War, Chikly went on to make the first Tunisian fiction film, a short entitled Zohra (1922), and then the first Tunisian feature film, Ain el-Ghezal ou la fille de Carthage/The Girl from Carthage (1924). McKernan considers both feats "a remarkable achievement when African filmmaking in general was almost non-existent." His tombstone bears the epitaph: ĎTireless in curiosity, reckless in courage, audacious in enterprise, obstinate amidst trials, resigned to misfortune, he leaves his friendsí.
Most WWI autochromes were the products of French photographers. As of this writing, the only German autochromes of the War which thus far have been located exist as colored postcards. Hans Hildenbrand was known to have made many autochromes during the First World War. However, Hildenbrand‘s War autochromes were evidently destroyed in 1944 during the bombing of Stuttgart. Fortunately, almost 700 of his non-War plates were sold to the National Geographic Magazine where they are currently stored. Nor have any Russian WWI autochromes been located though two three-color images by the great photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky are in the U.S. Library of Congressís collection. The only known American autochromes were probably taken immediately after the Warís end. The American Committee for Devastated France evidently sponsored reconstruction projects in France after the war came to an end. A group of approximately 75 autochromes records the devastation caused by the war as well as profiling some of its reconstruction projects.
There are a number of anonymous, almost always French, autochromes of soldiers. Family members of the soldiers apparently made most of these portraits when the soldiers were home on leave or, in rare cases, had portraits made by professional photographers who specialized in autochromes. As more research is conducted into the history of autochromes, there will likely be other names to add to this list. Autochromes represent an untapped resource not only for the study of the history of World War I, but also for the study of the history of the art of photography.
© Mark Jacobs Ė Used with permission