Centre for Fine Print Research University of the West of England Centre for Fine Print Research

The Autochrome: Tonalism in Colour

Author: Hammond, Anne
Name of conference: Colour Photography: From Autochrome to Cibachrome
Place: Courtauld Institute, London
Date: 10.11.2009
Paper Presented by: Dr Anne Hammond
URL Links: www.courtauld.ac.uk

In 1907, the Autochrome appeared to demonstrate in photography the theory held by some of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painters that the perceived colours of nature were mixed in the eye from points of coloured light. Already tonalists, many pictorial photographers moved readily into a colour process that was technically pointillist, but which expressed colour not by opaque reflection but by transparent illumination.

Despite Alfred Stieglitz’s prophecy that the world of photography would now go ‘colour mad’, for a few early Autochromists the new process offered not an explosion of prismatic colour, but a tonalism of late impressionist photographic style subtly flavoured by a use of hue articulated through tone, an expression by suggestion rather than direct statement. Writing about Whistler, the art and photography critic Sadakichi Hartmann wrote that the ultimate goal of the Impressionist was to represent an inner experience through tone, and that most impressionists were tonalists rather than colourists.

When Alvin Langdon Coburn, interviewed by Dixon Scott in 1907, identified himself as Whistlerian in his desire to preserve the fidelity of essential nature, he was referring to nature as selectively composed, seen through the soft-focus lens, and inflected with feeling through a restrained and harmonious use of hue. This paper explores the work of a group of early Autochromists, including Coburn, Alfred Stieglitz, Eduard Steichen, and Heinrich Kühn, who rejected colour for colour’s sake in preference for a colour aesthetic deriving from their commitment to tonalism in monochrome photography.