In 1903, Auguste and Louis Lumière invented a technology that changed not only how photographs were made, but also how people were able to see the world. They called it autochrome, and it became the first generally available process for color photography; before it, snapping color pictures required a photographer to set up three cameras that each used a separate color filter and superimpose them into one photo. The Lumières' invention utilized the potato (or, as these Frenchmen would have said, la pomme de terre) to capture images in what would now be considered a complicated process—but at that time, it was a dramatic step forward in technology.
Experimenting in their family’s factory, which already made black-and-white plates to be widely used by the public, the brothers grabbed some potatoes and started peeling. They ground the vegetable into tiny grains and separated the grains into three batches, dyeing some red-orange, some green, and some blue. The dyed particles were thoroughly mixed, then doused over a glass slide that had just been coated in a varnish. More varnish was added on top of the particles and then the slide was coated with a photography emulsion—a light-sensitive coating of bromide floating in gelatin. The potato particles acted as a filter while a photo was being taken, recording the intensity of light in each of the three colors.
Auteuil metro station on May 1, 1920. Photo courtesy Paris 1914.
The brothers found that their process worked. There was just one trick: When shooting an image, the subject had to remain perfectly still for the required exposure time of 60 seconds. The photograph that resulted was reminiscent of a pointillist painting—a technique where an artist uses tiny dots of various colors to create an image—but was still a vibrant photograph for the time. The Lumières patented the process in 1903 and unveiled it in 1907.
Now, rare photographs of Paris in the early 20th century that used the Lumières’ innovative process have emerged through the Paris 1914 project, a site dedicated to autochrome photography of Paris that showcases some of the images from the Albert-Khan Museum.
Aubert Palace in 1925. Photo courtesy Paris 1914.
You can check out more of the photographs here.