Robert Deane
photographer, photo historian, publisher
hHonorary Researcher, Department of Photography, National Gallery of Australia


Colour photography in the Asia Pacific region

The search for a reliable, repeatable process for making colour photographs is almost as old as photography itself. James Clerk Maxwell conclusively demonstrated the principles of tri-colour separation in 1861 while the Frenchman, Louis Ducos du Hauron demonstrated the rendering of full colour using three primary colours the following year.

It was not until the commercial release of the French Autochrome system in 1907 that a reliable colour process was achieved, albeit one requiring 50 times more exposure than contemporary black and white emulsions. Apart from the drawback of long exposure times, the Autochrome produced a unique positive image, like the daguerreotype and was very expensive to reproduce in print. In spite of these serious drawbacks, the Autochrome continued to be the dominant colour process until the introduction of Dufaycolor in 1935, until supplanted by Kodachrome in the following year.

In the intervening years, photographers everywhere simulated colour by hand colouring black and white images. Hand-coloured daguerreotypes, glass plates, albumen and carbon prints are found throughout the region in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The Autochrome process was not without considerable handicaps. The emulsion was some fifty times slower than contemporary monochrome emulsions, with an average exposure in full sunlight being one second at f/8 while photographing interiors required extremely long exposures, often with unpredictable results. Comparatively, the process was very expensive while the cost of reproducing Autochromes in print greatly restricted colour reproduction, the French newspaper L’Illustration became a pioneer of illustration by direct colour photographs with the first autochrome positives appeared in the issue of 15 June 1907. 

In England,  the first Autochrome reproductions appeared in the Illustrated London News in February 1911while in the United States, Scribner’s published 4 Autochromes in March 1910 and National Geographic magazine published its first Autochrome in July 1914, an image by Paul Guillamette, A Ghent flower garden.

 Despite its disadvantages, the Autochrome introduced a vast audience to what the National Geographic magazine called Natural Color, both in printed reproduction and in public displays of Autochromes. Jules Gervais-Courtellement opened the Palais de l’autochromie in Paris in 1911 with a lecture hall with seating capacity of 250, studio and laboratory. Typical lectures were illustrated with some 100 slides. In America, Frank Payne Clatworthy drew similarly large audiences to screenings of his Autochromes.

Later screen processes such as Finlay and Paget offered considerable advantages over the Autochrome, being both faster and, since the screen was separate from the emulsion support, the possibility of easy duplication. The image was however still relatively coarse and, in the case of Finlay,did not enlarge well. A drawback of these separate-screen process is that the screen frequently became detached over time from the corresponding emulsion support, so that many contemporary images, now regarded as monochrome positives may have originally been colour transparencies.

The introduction of Kodachrome still film in 1936 radically changed not only public accessibility to colour but also the ease with which direct colour images could be published in books, newspapers and magazines. A complex film to process, the superiority of Kodachrome lay in its ability to be used in smaller cameras, including the emerging 35mm cameras, faster exposure times, high resolution that allowed considerable enlargement and a more faithful translation of colour tones from film to print. While outside the period under consideration, the tradition of public screenings of colour transparencies begun by Gervaise-Courtellement, became fashionable in the late 1960-70’s, with multi-projector screenings of travel and expeditionary images, usually in Kodachrome.

The adoption and use of the Autochrome and later colour processes varies across the region.  A large proportion of surviving Autochrome images from Japan, China, Mongolia and modern Vietnam resulted from the ambitious Archives de la Planète project created by the millionaire Parisian banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn in 1908.  However, the use of Autochromes by indigenous photographers appears less uniform.  There seems little or no evidence of its adoption by Japanese or Chinese photographers. In Japan, the firmly established tradition of hand colouring of monochrome prints, often to an exceptionally high standard, continued. Yet, in India, by 1913 indigenous photographers are writing in local and British photographic journals on the use of the Autochrome.

In Australia the first Autochrome plates arrived by the end of 1907 and were eagerly adopted by professional photographers and members of the various photographic societies with some photographers producing stereo images in Autochrome. However the popularity of the process was short-lived. The materials were expensive and there was no local commercial outlet for the unique transparencies. The later Paget screen process was widely used by Australian photographers, particularly Frank Hurley, during the First World War before enthusiasm for colour photography waned in the 1920’s, reviving with the introduction firstly of Dufaycolour and then Kodachrome.

Unlike the experience with Autochrome, Kodachrome was slow to arrive in Australia, not being released until 1940. Here its adoption was hampered by cost, nearly ten times that of monochrome, no local processing facilities and increasing war time restrictions.

The National Geographic Society Magazine was the principal vehicle for the publication of colour photographs in America from 1916.  In addition to numerous images from China and Mongolia by the explorer Joseph Rock, the Society published eight Autochromes of India and Ceylon by Helen Messenger Murdoch in 1921 and extensive work by Gervais-Courtellement.  The first major publication of colour images of the American West was a sixteen image series of Autochromes made by Fred Payne Clatworthy and published by the Society in 1923. National Geographic photographers experimented with all of the commercial processes but Autochrome predominated until their use ceased in 1930, by which time some 1,700 had been published since 1921.

In terms of a photographic industry, the manufacture of colour materials or even their usage by indigenous photographers appears to have been largely an American and European phenomenon until Konisiroku produced a Kodachrome type film in Japan in 1940.

Robert Deane, Honorary Researcher, Photography, NGA, Canberra