Friday, August 29, 2008

A Brief History of... Spudography?

While photography is my #1 passion, I do have other interests: Archaeology and history being two of them. As a result, two of my favorite rags are Smithsonian and Archaeology magazines.

While Archaeology magazine often features average, snapshot-quality, photos accompanying their incredibly interesting articles, Smithsonian magazine provides some amazing photography to illustrate theirs. Smithsonian also features articles, on a fairly regular basis, that focus on the history of photography and/or historically important photographers.

Recently, I had a doctor's appointment and, while waiting to see the Doc, I spotted a September, 2007, issue of Smithsonian lying in the waiting area. BTW, I get my medical care from the VA. (Veterans Administration) Apparently, the VA has lots of people who donate magazines. There's always stacks of them in the waiting areas, albeit they are mostly somewhat dated, usually by a few months or more. Sometimes much more. Although I often purchase Smithsonian, somehow I had missed purchasing that particular issue--I guess I should subscribe instead of buying @ newsstands--so I snatched it and immediately decided to bring it home with me. Generally, I don't exhibit thieving ways but I made an exception in this case. (I hope that didn't cost me much in Karma points.)

There's an article in the September, 2007, issue of Smithsonian that roused my curiosity as both a photographer and history buff. It's titled, "Color Comes to Photography."

According to the Smithsonian's report, "The most improbable object imaginable--the lowly, lumpy potato--played a leading role in the great leap forward of color photography."

It seems that, back in 1903, the Lumière brothers--notable figures in the history of photography whose family name may or may not have been hijacked as a term for the the measurement of luminous flux, i.e., the perceived power of light called lumens--developed a dazzling new photographic process they called autochrome. ( A process more commonly referred to as color photography.) The Lumières developed this exciting process with the help of some pommes de terre which, if you speak French, you know means potatoes. Yep! Potatoes! Those wonderful, starchy, veggies we cook in so many ways. The French, of course, also made a certain recipe for pommes de terre quite popular by peeling them, cutting them, cooking them in hot oil and salting them thus transforming potatoes into French Fries! (Thank you mon frers! But why do you Frenchies dip your fries in mayonnaise rather than ketchup? You guys lose gastronomy points for that odd and unappealing habit. Leastwise, in my book you do.)

Anyway, somehow and someway those clever Lumière brothers figured out they could grind potatoes and apply the potato dust to photographic plates and, in so doing and with long exposures of a minute or so, manage to end up with a color image. How people figure this kind of stuff out is a total mystery to me. Potatoes into color photos? Go figure.

The lumières' new autochrome photographic plates were an immediate success and soon their factory was working overtime to meet the demand for potato-infused, color-producing plates. Famous photographers like Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Alvin Coburn were quick to embrace the new process. The Smithsonian article features some great examples of early 20th Century color spudography including a rare color portrait of Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a., Mark Twain.

The Lumières' autochrome process remained the king of color photography for over 30 years! Until it was dethroned, that is, by Kodachrome and Agfacolor film.

This update is, for the most part, a reprint of an article I wrote about a year ago for another blog. Here's a nice set of autochromes, courtesy of the George Eastman House, posted on Flickr.

1 comment:

Lin said...

I read an account of the potato's role in photography only last month. Amazing little vegetable eh?