24 February 2020

Autochromes from The Great War

The First World War in Color

Category: Stereoviews   Tags: Autochrome / WWI
Autochromes from The Great War - Black & White Photography and Stereoscopy Blog

The vast majority of images from the First World War are black and white photos, but original images in color exist. They were made by using the autochrome process developed by the French Lumière brothers.

Autochrome Lumière

In 1903 Auguste and Louis Lumière patented the Autochrome process and it was first marketed in 1907. Autochrome was the first process that allowed creating a color image based on one single exposure. It was therefore much easier to use compared to other processes. The autochrome was broadly used until the 1930s when it was slowly replaced by Kodak's Kodachrome.

An autochrome plate was coated with a mosaic of microscopic grains of potato starch in the colors red-orange, green and blue-violet. The grains acted as color filters. Essentially it worked the same way as the Red-Green-Blue Bayer filter of today's image sensors in digital cameras.

Colored starch grains in an Autochrome plate, greatly enlarged.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The spaces between the grains were filled by lampblack. A layer of panchromatic silver halide emulsion was coated on top of the filter layer. The light had to pass the filter layer first before it reached the emulsion and this increased the exposure time. Additionally, a yellow-orange filter was needed to block ultraviolet light for which the emulsion was hypersensitive. This increased the exposure time even more and exposures varied from about 1 to 6 seconds. Autochromes were particularly suitable for landscapes and still lifes. If people were portrayed, they were required to stand still for seconds to prevent image movement. Spontaneous photos were not possible and autochromes with people look often staged. Another characteristic is the grainy structure and pastel colors which make the images look like impressionistic paintings.

Autochrome War Photographers

Less than one-thousandth of the images from the First World War were color images. Most were produced by the photography unit of the French army, La Section Photographique de l'Armée (SPA). Photographers like Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud and Albert Samama Chikli made autochromes at various locations of the front.

Jules Gervais-Courtellemont was not enlisted in the SPA but was also active as a photographer along the battlefields of the Western Front. He published two books with collections of autochrome images of the Marne and Verdun battlefields. These are the first books ever published with color images of war.

Les Champs de Bataille de Verdun by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont
Les Champs de Bataille de Verdun by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont

Hans Hildebrand photographed the war from a German perspective. His autochromes were used for postcards. Unfortunately, most of his archive was lost during the Second World War.

The Stereoviews

My collection contains three 6x13 glass stereoviews from an unknown photographer. They show images of a French medical unit where the photographer was probably enlisted. I assume he was an officer, because autochromes were expensive and not accessible to soldiers with a modest salary. The stereoviews contain a small metal strip on top. It shows that the owner used a Planox Stéréoscope Magnétique to view the images. This stereoscope uses magnets to bring the stereoviews in viewing position and requires metal strips to be attached to the slides.

The slides don't contain numbers or titles. An included handwritten note reads:

Autochromes pendant la guerre 1915 - 1917
Juin 16 - à Verdun
431 - Mai 16 - à Mourmelon
401 - Avril 16 - Trou Bricot en Champagne

I can't say with certainty that this note is related to these three slides, so that remains an assumption.

Autochrome WWI - French medical unit

The first image shows two medics in front of a field hospital. Next to the door is a sign with the inscription 51 ART 2e groupe Infirmerie. It suggests that the medical unit was part of the 51e régiment d'artillerie.


Autochrome WWI - French medical unit
Autochrome WWI - French medical unit

The next image shows a medic wearing the 1914 uniform. The striking red pants made the French soldiers an easy target and the uniform was later replaced. The person in the background is wearing a more recent uniform. Apparently uniforms were not immediately replaced for everyone and troops behind the front wore the original uniform longer. Two horse-drawn carriages of the medical unit are visible in the background.


WWI - French medical unit
WWI - French medical unit

The last photo shows a portrait of what appears to be a doctor.

My slides are not in the best condition. Autochromes require good preservation and it seems that my slides suffered through the years. Nevertheless I'm very happy with my purchase because autochromes with images of the First World War are mainly stored in archives and don't show up often in online auctions.

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