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Based on text from the original book: Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988
Gael Newton, 1988 Australian National Gallery


by Chris Long

footnotes  |  contents

In the pursuit of expanding illusions of reality, two photographic techniques emerged at the turn of the century. Cinematography provided a new narrative tool extending illusion into the dimension of time and movement, while colour photography redressed a major disadvantage of camerawork in the nineteenth century.

Throughout the nineteenth century, black and white emulsions were only sensitive to blue and violet light. This was a problem in landscape photography resulting in toneless black masses of foliage and cloudless skies. This deficiency could be overcome by printing in clouds from separate negatives.

By 1900 all of the ingredients for colour photography were available. Sensitising dyes were developed to extend the colour response of emulsions to the red end of the spectrum, so that the ideal of equal colour response, or 'panchromatism', had been achieved in the laboratory by 1884(1). For the next twenty years, however, the inclusion of these sensitising dyes in the emulsion led to undesirable side effects, as they deteriorated quickly and tended to fog.

The keeping properties of plates were particularly important for Australian photographers. At the turn of the century, shipment time from Britain would delay the sale of all photographic materials at least five weeks from the time of manufacture. The plates would have to pass through the hot and humid equatorial zone, and could spoil in transit.

News of experiments in colour photography overseas was received in Australia as early as 15 February 1894, when the Photographic Review of Reviews reported on the Lumière brothers in France and their experiments and improvements to the Lippman process(2). The earliest confirmed(3) local experiments with colour in Australia were demonstrations of the lantern kromskop in 1899, by Mark Blow, proprietor of the Crown Studios in Sydney, then one of the largest and best equipped in Australia(4). The lantern kromskop was devised by an American experimenter, and involved the superimposition of three colour separation transparencies onto a screen, through their respective primary colour filters(5).

Blow's flower studies were praised as novel and beautiful in the A.P.-R. on 24 August 1899. The A.P.J. also reported on Blow's demonstrations and ‘the difficulty under which he laboured, the book of instructions not having come with the instruments he imported, so that he had to experiment'(6).

Blow's position as a well-equipped professional allowed him to use expensive equipment requiring complex manipulation. A.J. Perier (1870-1964) recalled that Blow made his own papers and plates(7). He might also have been able to make up special panchromatic emulsions of his own, thus overcoming the usual spoiling of the plates en route to Australia.

Although the kromskop views were rarely taken in Australia, many imported examples were circulated, and these stimulated a local appreciation of colour work. H.H. Baker of Melbourne, for instance, toured Australia with a kromskop giving demonstrations to the Northern Tasmanian Camera Club in January 1899(8).

The first Australian natural colour prints on paper were made by a Swiss photographer and photoengraver, James Aebi (w. c. 1897-1910s) of the Workingman's College (later RMIT) Photographic Club in Melbourne during February 1905(9). Within a few months, Aebi was running classes in three-colour printing at the college, probably for the benefit of members of the book and magazine printing industry.

Aebi's colour printing system was most likely very similar to the Sanger-Shepherd process, which was described by W. De. W. Abney in the A.P-R. of 21 January 1904. Colour separation negatives were printed onto ‘matrix' relief-image films soaked in appropriate dyes, and these dye images were transferred onto a sheet of white paper coated with clear gelatin. We know the system today in a modified form as the dye transfer process.

A few weeks later, on 10 March 1905, the Launceston Examiner reported on colour prints produced by a similar process by the Launceston chemist, Frank Styant Browne. As the tri-separation exposures were of several minutes' duration, only still-life subjects were attempted, as was the case with the earlier work of Aebi and Blow. A particular problem with the system was the variability of natural sunlight with time. A passing cloud could cause the exposure to vary between the colour separations, resulting in a spurious colour cast in the final image.

In May 1907 A.V. Wilkinson, a photographer for the Town and Country journal, lectured on the tri-separation process to the Mosman Photographic Society in Sydney. He demonstrated examples of Pinatype, autotype, and tricolour carbon prints, together with transparencies made by the Pinatype, Sanger-Shepherd and Joly processes(10). His colour transparency of Mosman scenery is the oldest surviving Australian example of colour photography.

While colour photography continued to be shackled to the preparation and printing of three separate panchromatic negatives, few Australian workers bothered to pursue it. Exposure, registration and development were all quite critical of manipulation. A much simpler system was needed to encourage more general application of natural colour photography - a system using a single plate with a single exposure. Such a process was introduced commercially in the latter half of 1907, resulting in the first wave of enthusiasm for colour photography. The last few summers of Edwardian Australia were recorded in all the hues of nature by the colour pioneers.

Additive screen plate colour: 1907-1930s

By placing a screen comprised of fine lines or dots of the three primary colours in front of the panchromatic plate, it is possible to produce a colour photograph. Colour television functions in a similar way. Viewed from a distance, the screen of dots has a uniform grey appearance. But by selectively blocking some of the primary colour dots or lines, any colour can be synthesised.

In comparison with modern colour processes, the screen process had a number of disadvantages. The screen plate limited the detail resolved by the photograph, and sometimes caused moiré effects. The constant presence of the colour screen and photographic emulsion in the light path made additive transparencies inherently dense with poor light transmission. So these processes were principally suited to the production of transparencies, where a great deal of light could be forced through the image. Very few systems were advanced to allow additive screen colour printing on paper(11) and no Australian additive colour prints are known to have survived. As a result, the overwhelming majority of all pre1940 Australian colour photographs are transparencies, usually intended for projection.

It was possible to prepare tri-separation ink printing plates for the reproduction of screen colour transparencies for publication in books and magazines. But this was a circuitous and expensive method, only suited to the few early magazines like Camera Work, The Studio or the National Geographic .Magazine, where either the affluence of readership or the large circulation would bear the high cost. Australia had few magazines of this type, and our very small population rarely justified the trouble.

Colour photography's great commercial breakthrough originated in France in mid 1907. The Lumière brothers, pioneers of cinematography in the 1890s, turned their attention to colour photography in the first decade of this century. By 1904 they perfected a screen plate using dyed grains of potato starch with a panchromatic emulsion coated over them. By exposing the plate through the screen of starch grains, then developing straight to a positive transparency by chemical reversal, the system provided beautiful colour transparencies known as autochromes(12). Production problems prevented their commercial introduction until 1907, with supplies initially being limited to the French domestic market owing to a heavy demand(13).

The autochrome system caused a rapid expansion of Australian colour photography. Its muted tones and grainy pointillism was reminiscent of Impressionist painting, and the Pictorial school of photography was primed to nurture such a system. By September 1907, autochrome plates were available in England, but they didn't reach Australia until the end of that year(14). Most of the early autochrome exponents in Australia were members of photographic societies who had traced the reputation of the new plates from the enthusiastic European reports reprinted in the local magazines. In December 1907 the Tasmanian amateur photographers, J.H. Lithgow (w. 1892-1910) and F.E. Burbury(1866-c. 1930), of the Northern Tasmanian Camera Club acquired the first autochrome plates to arrive in Australia(15).

Frank Styant Browne and Vaudry Robinson (c.1885-c.1961) were also involved in these colour experiments(16). The plates were imported directly from France by Burbury, and the technical knowledge of Browne and Lithgow, both professional chemists, aided them in undertaking the reversal development process. Development by reversal involved several more baths than the standard negative positive system, and the chemicals for the bleaching stage of this process were rather corrosive and difficult to handle.

Amateur botanists including H.J. King (c. 1892-1973), L.N.G. Ward and A.A. Pearson were attracted to the new autochromes, which were well suited to still life studies of flowers and plants. Relatively few early colour photographs exist of Australian streetscapes or of important historical events. Much of the surviving early colour material executed in Australia reveals a lack of imagination in subject matter and application in comparison with work in overseas magazines like Camera Work and The Studio. The 1908 special edition of The Studio magazine was devoted entirely to the possibilities of colour photography.

One of the few photographers to attempt other than conventional still-life studies was the artist Lionel Lindsay who made a series of autochromes of nudes in 1908(17). Most of the early Australian autochrome exponents were enthusiastic amateurs, as few commercial professional markets existed for irreproducible, expensive colour transparencies(18).

Some commercial studios - Talma, Falk, Freeman and L.W. Appleby(19) -seem to have made trials with autochromes, although no examples of this usage are known to exist today. After these initial trials little practical follow-up in colour activity seems to have occurred. Much of this professional activity was reported in the local photographic magazines, so that the intention might have been more concerned with being seen to use the new process. Commercial colour portraiture was hampered by the long exposures and never really took off.

By March 1908 the autochrome fever had reached Adelaide, where A.A. Stump took some test subjects(20). On 23 April 1908 the Adelaide Register reported on experiments with stereo autochromes taken by a prominent amateur photographer, noting that 'Mr Debbie spoiled nine plates before achieving success'. It seems that the process could be an expensive pursuit.

April 1908 saw the autochrome spread among Melbourne's professional photographers, including Andrew Barrie (1860-c.1939) and T. Paterson, who used the plates for landscape and portraiture(21). But the majority of laurels in early Australian colour photography fell to amateur practitioners. F.A. Joyner, a Pictorialist and prominent member of the South Australian Photographic Society, took a number of autochromes around 1908 including ambitious genre scenes and sensitive portraits. He had written an account of the introduction of the process in the Adelaide Register as early as 28 December 1907. By August 1909 Frank Styant Browne won a medal at the Franco-British Exhibition in London for his autochromes(22) and many other amateurs were taking similar awards.

Arthur D. Whitling of Summer Hill, New South Wales, was another early amateur autochrome exponent, notable for the survival of a major part of his autochrome stereo collection in the Australian War Memorial(23). Whitling's varied coverage of street scenes, landscapes and interiors cover the years from about 1909-1920. These were taken in a small stereo camera called a Verascope, which was popular among several autochrome enthusiasts. Each image is only about 3.8 centimetres square, but they provide excellent definition and superb colour rendition, as they were viewed directly by magnification and were not baked in lantern slide projectors as so many autochromes seem to have been. Whitling's stereo autochromes attracted the attention of the A.P-R. on 22 August 1913. The article mentions that exposures of about one and a half seconds at f8 in strong sunlight were necessary for the colour plates. Such slow exposures naturally placed tremendous limitations on subject matter. Action subjects were almost impossible to deal with, so that the colour photography of this pioneer period often seems almost as static and formal as the wet plate photography of a half century earlier. The small format and relatively fast (f4.5) lenses of the Verascope helped to overcome this somewhat.

The value of the colour photograph as a documentary record was, however, recognised very early by travellers and expedition photographers. The photographic records of large expeditions tend to be preserved in central repositories, and in this case the early colour work is readily identified and mostly able to be located.

The H.P.J. of 23 October 1911 contains a lengthy article on the preparations for the Mawson Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1913. Here we read that Sir Douglas Mawson was an expert on colour photography, having been tutored in the work by one of its leading exponents in London, 'It will therefore be very interesting to see what wonders will be revealed to us through the modern autochrome process'(24). Several autochrome plates from this expedition do survive in the Mawson Institute in Adelaide, as do a further set at the Australian Archives, Canberra, mainly illustrating sunset effects and the plumage of birds, but these were probably the work of the expedition photographer, Frank Hurley. The report refers to the donation by Messrs Lumière of Paris of a 'case of autochrome plates' to the expedition, and a donation by Newman and Guardia of ten cameras, 'mostly of the reflex type, including two Sybils, fitted with carriers for autochrome work'.

Regular screen processes

With their random pattern of colour screen dots, the autochromes could not be easily copied. The solution to this was initially provided by several processes(25) which involved exposing the negative plate through a separate colour screen plate with a regular pattern of ruled or printed dots or lines. Many of these regular screen processes had rather coarse ruling in comparison with the fine irregular screen of the autochrome, and their colour fidelity was not as good. Several early processes were launched but they quickly failed. The best known and longest surviving regular screen process was the Paget system of G.S. Whitfield and Clare Finlay, introduced commercially in April 1913(26).

Many amateurs took up Paget colour for its ease of use and ready reproducibility. L.N.G. Ward and H.J. King used the system around World War One. But the most outstanding Australian exponent of the Paget process was Frank Hurley to whom the Paget system offered many advantages over the autochrome. The colour screen plate was usually sold as a separate item to the panchromatic negatives. On a strenuous expedition, a single screen plate could be placed into the camera to expose many negatives in succession. The resultant negatives looked like standard black and white negatives with a noticeable crosshatch in areas of strong colour.

Transparency positives could be made from these panchromatic negatives by contact printing. These positives were bound in register with a colour viewing screen of the same type used for exposure, to reproduce the view in full colour. Many copies could be printed from each negative, the resultant positives being each registered with their own colour viewing screens. If, on the other hand, a black and white print was required, the negative could be simply printed onto paper without bothering about the colour viewing screen.

Hurley's first work with the Paget process was undertaken on the Shackleton Antarctic Expedition 1914-1916, during which he was forced to destroy most of the photographic plates after the demise of the expedition ship, the Endurance. A few Paget colour views of the ship in its death throes have survived and are now held at the Mitchell Library. Most of these are half-plate format transparencies, intended for direct viewing. Hurley considered these Paget views to be 'amongst the most valuable records of the expedition'(27).

After his return to England in 1916, Hurley used Paget colour plates to record various aspects of the battlefront in the World War One. From August 1917 he took colour photographs as part of an overall record of life on the Western Front(28). Owing to the longer exposures needed for the Paget colour system than for monochrome photos, most of these were limited to the recording of static views. However, Hurley commented that:

The characteristic colour of the shell-torn battlefields and rain-filled shell craters discoloured by gas fumes are all portrayed with perfect accuracy(29).

The Paget colour record of the war continued and expanded when Hurley moved to Palestine in December 1917(30). However he was either unwilling or unable to undertake really newsworthy reportage with this system. The collection is now split between the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and the Mitchell Library in Sydney(31).

Today many of the Paget viewing screens, which are bound in register with their transparency positives, have faded or suffered colour shifts. The purplish hues which some of these present no longer give a true indication of their original colour fidelity.

Hurley's war photographs, including many of his Paget plates cropped down to lantern slide size for projection, were exhibited at the Grafton Galleries in London in June 1918(32). This was perhaps the first professional show by an Australian photographer in which colour photographs took a major part. His work with the Paget process did not cease with the war, and he is known to have used it in New Guinea in 1921 for recording life on Maui Island, and possibly elsewhere in his tropical ventures(33).

The 1920s: a low point in colour photography

Interest in natural colour photography sank to very low levels in Australia during the 1920s after the burst of 1908-1914. One reason for the loss of interest might lie in the trend towards the use of flexible roll black and white films, Nearly all of the early screen plate colour processes used rigid glass plates until the 1930s, including the autochrome, Paget and Finlay processes(34). The Pictorial school which the autochrome suited was in decline. The new aesthetics favoured bright sunny pictures of sharply lit forms.

A few enterprising amateurs like Frederick Smithies (1885-1979) and H.J. King in Tasmania continued to produce stereo autochromes using a lightweight Verascope to record wilderness scenes. Smithies' stereo autochromes of the Cradle Mountain region won prizes at the Hobart Amateur Photography Exhibition of 1922(35). Smithies actively campaigned for the protection of Cradle Mountain and its environs through the 1920s and 1930s, using photography as a tool for swaying public opinion.

The autochrome remained as the premier system of colour photography for the amateur through the 1920s. Few workers bothered with the complex tri-separation system. An exception lay in the printing industry. As expensive magazines like Australia Beautiful published by The Home began to appear, the use of three-colour printing, particularly for advertising, became more common. During the 1920s the technique was mainly used for the reproduction of hand-painted artwork. Very few actual colour photographs of live subjects were reproduced.

For live subjects and portraiture, the only really satisfactory arrangement lay in the use of a special camera that exposed all three colour separation negatives simultaneously. This was usually done by means of internal colour filters and reflectors behind the lens. These one shot colour cameras were quite expensive and difficult to keep in alignment - only a viable device in professional hands.

The Jos-Pe one-shot colour camera was commercially launched in 1925. The Melbourne photographer William T. Owen (1898-1979) used this camera to produce negatives for printing in the trichrome carbro and trichrome carbon processes around 1930, while he worked at the Spencer Shier Studio, later commercialising the process for P.C. Grossers. Several examples of Owen's tricolour printing experiments are held by the National Gallery of Victoria, including advertising and genre studies.

In the tricolour carbon process, the three separation negatives were printed onto carbon tissues of complementary colour to the taking filters. These developed tissues, bearing relief images, were assembled in register on a white card to produce the final print. The carbon tissues had to be printed by contact in sunlight, so that no enlargement from the negatives was possible.

Tricolour carbro was a more complex process, but it permitted enlargement. Bromide prints would be printed or enlarged from the colour separation negatives. These bromides were then squeegeed against colour carbro tissues, which were sensitised at the moment of use. A chemical reaction takes place between the silver image of the bromide print and the soluble gelatin coating of the carbro tissue, making the tissue insoluble in direct proportion to the density of silver in the image. The carbro tissue was then removed from the bromide print, squeegeed onto a support, and put into hot water to dissolve away the soluble gelatin. The three carbro tissues are then assembled on the final white card support in register.

In 1929, an improved version of the Paget screen plate process with superior colour rendition and better colour stability was introduced as the Finlay Colour Process (36).

This was used for several years by prominent overseas magazines for colour reproduction. The results possessed outstanding colour fidelity in comparison with the old Paget plates so that several Australian workers, notably Frank Hurley and H.J. King used them extensively. Several hundred of King's Tasmanian botanical and landscape studies in Finlay Colour survive, many of which are of remarkable quality. H.J. King was a deeply religious man who sought God through nature. He saw the need for colour in photography as a recording and sharing of nature with others.

The 1930s and the shift to flexible colour film

A new interest in colour photography grew as the 1930s dawned, perhaps owing to the increasing use of natural colour film for cinematography(37). Indeed, many of the early colour processes were first made available as 16 millimetre amateur cine stock before being made available for taking stills.

Such was the case with Dufaycolour, introduced as a cine stock in 1932 but not available as a roll film for still cameras until 1935(38). This was the last of the really popular additive screen colour processes to find favour in Australia. The expatriate Tasmanian photographer Mel Nicholls (1894-1985) was involved in the use and sale of this film at an early date, and while based in London in 1937 he was one of the cameramen who shot the Coronation for cinema release in Dufaycolour, also taking many large-format Dufay transparencies for the advertising industry. These are technically impressive(39).

As soon as Dufaycolour film became available, it was possible for any amateur with a brownie box camera to take competent colour transparencies. The colour screen was very much finer than that used for any of the previous colour processes, and was commonly referred to as the film's reseau. Only the extra stage of reversal development was needed for a result in colour. Initially, this was misunderstood by many users and the films were sent to developing and printing establishments who developed them to negative only, like a standard black and white film. Such lack of expertise discouraged the more casual users, but serious amateur photographers used Dufaycolour extensively for the next fifteen years or so.

Dufaycolour's rendition of hues was excellent, and the reseau was sufficiently fine as to be inconspicuous. But as with all additive screen processes, the colour screen cut down the transmitted light and the transparencies were inherently dense. In a projector, this absorption of light would often cause the transparency to heat up and buckle if it was projected for a lengthy period. The answer to this problem lay in the development of three-layer 'subtractive' film, in which highlights were represented by transparent film, while the various colour layers would subtract light from the source to provide the colours. The first of the modern subtractive transparency films - Kodachrome - was supplied in America as 16 millimetre cine film stock in April 1935, but only became available as a 35 millimetre still stock in September 1936(40). Highly technical and complex development techniques were required for Kodachrome, so that it was not available in Australia for some time, as no local laboratories were equipped to handle it.

On 2 March 1936 the A.P-R. reported that 'Kodachrome cine film is not yet available in Australia or New Zealand, though a very small quantity is stocked to meet a demand from outgoing tourists who can get the film processed overseas'.

Kodachrome film demonstrations were a feature of Sydney's Royal Agricultural Show in March 1937(41) and the first roll of the Kodachrome still film to be exposed in Australia was purportedly supplied to the Launceston amateur H.J. King at about this time(42).

Kodachrome was fearfully expensive in relation to other films, including some colour films, until after World War Two. It is curious to note that there was no official colour film coverage of Australia's involvement in World War Two in the way that Hurley had recorded World War One(43). All of the colour film of the war from Australian sources is of amateur origin, much of this being 16 millimetre Kodachrome cine stock.

The post-war boom

The technical story of the basic principles of colour photography finishes with Kodachrome, on which most of the other processes subsequently developed are still based(44). Additive films like Dufaycolour gradually lost favour as the volume of subtractive film production increased and its prices fell accordingly. The production of separation negatives for anything but publication or fastidious archival printing became a thing of the past. The 'one shot' colour camera with its filters and beam splitting mirrors was superseded by the use of monopack colour transparencies like Kodachrome.
Above and beyond all these considerations, the attitude to colour photography was changing. Before the war colour had always been regarded as a 'specialist technique', after the war, colour was becoming a part of mainstream photography.

Until the 1960s, the majority of colour images being made were transparencies for projection, but through the 1970s cheap film processing made colour print film the more ubiquitous photographic mode, in spite of inherently fugitive dyes and mediocre quality control. Instant print colour films like Polacolor were introduced in the early 1960s. The later SX-70 process was introduced in 1972,

From the war onwards, it becomes impossible to trace the individual careers of colour photographers as they multiplied so rapidly. Where once a select band of technically advanced specialists kept colour photography to themselves, colour has, since 1945, been a viable option for any photographer, and cannot be so easily traced as a separate line of development in itself.

Art photographers like Max Dupain consider that the many uncontrollable variables of colour film make it less than satisfactory as a vehicle for artistic expression. Wilderness Movement photographers today, however, see the colour medium as a closer approximation to the reality that they wish to convey as directly as possible.

Contemporary photographer, David Moore, who has used colour materials in his professional photojournalism, recently observed that he could not think of any single 'great' colour photographs, although many black and white photographic icons readily came to his mind(45). This view is shared by a number of art photographers and curators. Whether this is due to the still uncontrollable variables of colour photography, its expense, or an enduring prejudice against the literalism of this process is not known.

List of illustrations used in the original publication (captions may be abbreviated):

P.162: A.V.Wilkinson: View of Mosman. c1906-1907

P.164; Lionel Lindsay: Nude. 1908

P.165: A.H.Joyner: Bioling the billy. c.1908

P.165: Arthur D. Whitling: AAt 'Cotswold', view from the dining room door. 1911

P.166: Frank Hurley: An Australian lighthorseman collecting anemones, Palestine. c.1917

P.167: Frank Hurley: Machines of the Australian Flying Corps. c.1917



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