Capturing a Garden’s True Colors: the Autochrome Process
In the early twentieth century, gardens were predominantly documented by hand-painted glass lantern slides. The painting process was a meticulous one as it involved the painstaking application of color to the flowers and foliage captured on the black and white positive. Not surprisingly, colorists (who were not horticulturists) often applied the wrong colors; purple irises were painted pink, and orange tiger lilies were painted yellow. Garden enthusiasts yearned to have photographs that not only depicted their gardens beautifully, but accurately.
The earliest color photography, the autochrome process was developed by the pioneer fimmakers, the Lumière brothers. As Sam Watters writes in his book, Gardens for a Beautiful America, Frances Benjamin Johnston, the famous garden photographer, was one of the first in her business to experiment with this new additive color process. An autochrome plate consisted of a a glass plate coated on one side with microscopic grains of red-orange, green and blue-violet potato starch. Lampblack filled the space between grains and the top layer was coated wtih a black-and white panchromatic silver halide emulsion. Once the camera’s shutter was opened light went through two crucial steps; first, it would pass through an orange-yellow filter on the camera (which corrected the emulsion’s ultra sensitivity to violet and blue light); second, the light would penetrate the glass plate of colored potato starch before finally reaching the emulsion.
The plate was reversal-processed into a positive transparency and at normal viewing distances, the individual grains of colored potato starch blended together in the eye, reconstructing the captured scene. Autochrome glass plates continued to be produced into the 1930s, falling out of style with the introduction of Lumière Filmcolor sheet film in 1931, then Lumicolor roll film in 1933. Sprinkled throughout the Archives of American Gardens’ collection, autochrome photographs not only beautifully and faithfully depict their subjects, but also testify to the intersection of garden design and photographic history.
Kristina Borrman, Katzenberger Art History Intern