Tuesday, December 14, 2010


So today is the day that I have been looking forward to for a loooooooooong time. Autochromes!

Anna Stocká by Josef Jindřich Šechtl ca 1909. This photo is the earliest known autochrome of Šechtl's. The lady in the photograph is his future wife Anna. This is my favorite autochrome of all time and it is currently in the collection of the Šechtl & Voseček Museum of Photography. I am especially fond of the soft pale blue color of her dress and her beautiful wide brimmed hat.  

I'll start with an explanation of what an autochrome is. An autochrome is a color photo printed on glass using potato starch. Crazy right? The process was invited by Auguste and Louis Lumière (the same Lumière brothers who invented the motion picture camera the cinématographe). The process was patented in 1903 and was used as late as the 1930s.

The process used a screen of tiny potato starch grains dyed orange-red, green and violet. The grains were dusted onto a glass plate and then covered with a layer of panchromatic silver bromide emulsion. As light entered the camera it was filtered by the dyed grains before it reached the emulsion. The exposure time for one of these images was very very long, but the result was a semi opaque positive color image on glass that required no further printing.

Close up of Autochrome approx 1911
While working at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film I was very fortunate to get to look at some autochromes up close. They need to be viewed on a light table to be seen properly, but I can tell you that the colors are even more vivid and stunning than the images in this post. It is very difficult to reproduce autochromes as digital files true to color because of the nature in which they are printed.

Autochromes are composed of a series of tri-colored dots (as you can see in the image above) that work like a video screen. Because the dots are so small and so closely packed together the colors of adjacent dots blend together in our eyes. Light from neighboring red and green dots will create a yellow color and like from violet and green dots will make a light blue. Neat, right?

I've included some of my favorite autochromes here, but I strongly encourage you to do a quick search online for others. It's amazing how well these images have held up over time and I just love getting to see the actual colors of frocks from the 1900s and teens!

Couple ca. 1910 by Mrs. Benjamin F. Russell. 
This lady is subscribing to a more relaxed fashion than the lady at the top of his post even though the photos were taken at relatively the same time. She's equally stunning in my opinion. I love the color of her frock, the simple cut, her matching pink scarf, and her cute hat. What do you think, Readers? Is that an engagement ring on her finger there?

Woman wearing red dress with houses in background ca. 1915.
 I find her up-do to be very lovely and her shoes to be very charming. It's a little hard to see but she is wearing a high lace collar and sleeves with lace cuffs. There are a ton of little button details up and down the front and sides of her dress that remind me of traveling coats from this era. I'm not sure what this frock is made out of, but the fabric is obviously quite thick and heavy. Canvas maybe? The way the fabric wrinkles around the skirt hem makes me lean more towards a heavy plant based fabric than an animal fabric.

Dancer wearing Egyptian-look costume with wings reaching to the floor ca. 1915
This would have been at the height of Egyptian fever, though still previous to the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb. As with most images from this period I could find out very little information about the woman in the photo and why she might be wearing this getup. Perhaps she is a dancer, though for what type of production I couldn't say.

Cowgirl by Mrs. Benjamin F. Russell  ca. 1910.
I love her! I love this image!  This autochrome is in the George Eastman House collection, Rochester, NY. I love her big hat and giant rodeo pants. I suspect this is more of a masquerade outfit or show outfit than actual work clothes, but I'm totally cool with that.

Lady Helen Vincent by Lionel de Rothschild ca 1910.
Lady Helen was apparently a society beauty and wife of the diplomat Sir Edgar Vincent. I am swooning over her beautiful pale pink dress with the lace sleeves. Just look at the lacy detail down the front of her skirt and the black belt around her waist is so classy.

Man and women carrying suitcases by Charles C. Zoller  ca 1907 - 1932.
I'm going to go ahead and guess that this print comes from 1918-1922 based on her dress and his sweater and tie. The only thing that keeps me from pinning this a few years later is the lack of make-up on her face. The early 1920s saw a huge swell in make-up usage with the widespread post-war availably of cosmetics. What do you think, Dear Readers? What time might this couple have lived in?

Unknown photographer, subject, and date... but wow. Just wow. Look at that dress! And look at those plumes on that hat! Look at that lace on her blouse! If this lady's attire doesn't scream fashion I don't know what does. Makes a girl want to start making Edwardian clothing doesn't it?

Seneca Pool 1924 ca. 1924
I really love these cute 1920s bathers. This pool was actually located not too far from where I went to college, but it has since been filled in. Look at how the ladies are mostly in dark wool swimsuits, but they wear brightly colored swim caps. I didn't realize that there were so many different cap color options when I wrote my 1920s swimsuit post. You learn something new every day. 


BaronessVonVintage said...

these are so beautiful. I had seen the picture of the couple in the second image before but thought it was from the 30s--that type of band-style hat, her hair, which looks like a late 20s or early 30s bob, etc, all seem much later than 1910? The other picture you were mentioning is intriguing. Almost looks like she was wearing a maternity dress, rather than a loose "aesthetic" frock. The hat is also unique (the frame under the veil looked like early 30s horsehair type thing)? Regarding makeup, not all women wore cosmetics, even though they were the vogue in the 20s? Lots to think about. Beautiful images!

Tasia said...

Wow! Really cool, thanks for sharing! My favourite is the red dress girl with the updo and the old houses in the background. Beautiful images!

Nancy said...

Baroness: I thought the image was from the 1930s originally as well, but the date I listed above is the actual cataloged date. ISo we can pretty safely assume that is this is the date it was created or very close to it. The more I looked at the print the more I began to think that she's wearing one of the looser sack dresses of the early teens that were popular with younger middle class women of the time, but it's so hard to tell. And what really gets me is the fact that the man's collar is attached to his shirt. I'm pretty sure that the detachable collar was the look of the time. Who knows, maybe the cataloger's date is wrong?

And good call on that second photo. The thought of maternity dress hadn't even popped into my head. And I had the same thought about make up, but it is soooooooooo rare to see a photo from the 1920s where a woman hasn't taken the time to do her makeup. Gah! Who knows?

Lisa said...

Fascinating. It's so neat to see color pictures pre-1930's... I love to learn about film processes I haven't heard of before, these photos are gorgeous. Thanks for sharing!

BaronessVonVintage said...

wow, I'm such a nerd. I've been staring at that picture again and again...I dunno. The details just don't say "1910" to me at all. A woman (not a girl) without a corset, wearing a dress with short sleeves that exposure her arms, with a distinct waist line, and with a hem around calf length (we can just see a bit of this at the bottom of the image), with hair that appears to short and distinctly unEdwardian (and the research I previously have done into cropped hair doesn't record women going for shorter locks until years later) would have been SO radical at this time period, I just don't think it's accurate. Once again, that hat style just doesn't at all connect with 1910--MAYBE I would be open to late 10s, but not early 1910s. Even her jewellery (the bracelet and the ring...very later 20s-30s). The man's collar looks too flat to be a detachable--one of the distinct features of those collars was their more rigid shape. His tie DOES look almost like a detachable one (and those were invented in 1927....?). Anyway, I'm rambling. The point is, if I were a betting gal, I'd say this is a photograph from the early 1930s. I wish we could have seen them standing up...with the aid of seeing shoes, actual dress silhouette and length, etc etc, I think we could more accurately pinpoint date. Oh, regarding that other lady with the maternity dress and the whole makeup thing, I have TONS of photos of women from the 20s and 30s, including pictures of my grandmother, in which no women are wearing makeup. My grandmother was a depression era rural farmer's daughter...lots of country girls only wore makeup only for very special occasions or never at all. So, I think age, socioeconomic status, geographical location and so forth may be behind some instances when women did not wear makeup. It's sort of like nowadays--I know a LOT of women who are full time moms who just don't wear makeup. Anyway, this has been such a fascinating post. I hope I am not coming across as an annoying git!

Nancy said...

Baroness: Oh no, you're not annoying at all! I'm finding this fun an fascinating. I could do this all day. Plus I'm learning! I suppose what I should have said was it's sooooooo rare to see a photo that uses such an expensive and time consuming method with a lady without makeup, but you're right it could always happen. The autochrome is not a cheap, but is this lady is a friend of or related to Mr. Zoller that could account for the casual setting and lack of aforementioned cosmetics.

I actually managed to find another photo of the same couple in the GEH archives which supports my theory that these are friends or family of Mr. Zoller. So my initial comment about makeup is obsolete. I will still pin this in the late teens/early twenties though as in this other photo we can see that whole dress and I believe that the style has got to be from that period. The man also has high cuffed trousers, typical of post war america. I believe the veil is there because they are going on their honeymoon and not because it is the style so we can rule it out as being from the 1930s.

As for the other photo, I'm still in the process of searching the archives for another print of that couple. Maybe lightning will strike twice and we'll get lucky, hey?