December 8: Chromoscopy

Date #8December 8: Colour photography involves dissecting the spectrum; it is a process that may be reversed, either practically, or conceptually.

Today marks the birth in 1837 of Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron  (†1920), inventor in 1869, of subtractive colour synthesis. Even before he made any practical experiments or even operated a camera, he had conceived of the basic principle which he presented his memorandum Etude des sensations lumineuses at the Société des Arts et Sciences d’Agen in 1859.

The method which I propose is based on the principle that the simple colours are reduced to three — red, yellow and blue — the combinations of which in different proportions give us the infinite variety of shades we see in nature. One may now say that analysis of the solar spectrum by means of a glass which passes only one colour has proved that red exists in all parts of the spectrum, and the like for yellow and blue, and that one is forced to admit that the solar spectrum is formed of three superimposed spectra having their maxima of intensity at different points. Thus one might consider a picture which represents nature as composed of three pictures superimposed, the one red, the second yellow, and the third blue. The result of this would be that if one could obtain separately these three images by photography and then reunite them in one, one would obtain an image of nature with all the tints that it contains.

He experimented with a colour camera consisting of two angled semi-reflecting and transmitting silver mirrors that divided the lens beam into three parts, one for each colour to be received on separate plates.

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 11.19.04 pm
Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron’s Chromographoscope, 1874 which could be used either as a camera or an additive viewer.

He announced his success in the pamphlet Les couleurs en photographie, solution du problème, in which film was coated with three layers of emulsion sensitive to different primary colours (i.e., red, green, and blue). When processed they yielded a full-colour photograph. He made several photographs using this camera, though his invention was not able to be industrialised.

Louis Ducos du Hauron (c.1869-1879) Still life with rooster

Ducos du Hauron at the same time proposed a second solution consisting of a single filter, a three-coloured screen covered either by a thin network of lines, or by a mosaic of dots, but it was not until 1894 that the idea was studied again by different researchers, including Ducos du Hauron, and finally successfully produced by the Lumiere brothers’ autochrome process.

Today MMX Contemporary Photography gallery448 New Cross Road,  London SE14 6TY, opens the first solo show of British photographer Neil Shirreff Curiosity, Invention and the Photograph, which continues until 27 January 2018.

Shirreff would appear to reverse Ducos du Hauron’s process, for experimental, aesthetic and conceptual purposes and to ‘reverse engineer’ the colour pioneer’s Chromographoscope. His website is generous in enabling a tracking of the development of this work from landscape work of the early 2000s to his current imagery which is a rare amalgam of mechanical and mathematical applications on photo-sensitive materials.

matrixWith its inclusion of calculator, screwdriver and pens, the still life below encapsulates his interests. While he does not explain the work, it is evident that it is assembled from strips drawn from 5 separate exposures in which the lighting, but nothing else, has been altered. This is evident in the paper printout at left, in which in one strip the far side its fold is lit, and in the strip adjacent to that the light comes from the camera side.

Work in Progress, Still Lives 2012 Misc 1 : 3, Work in Progress, Still Lives 2012
(2012 ) Work in Progress, Still Lives.

It is an experiment that leads to more ingenious and complex constructions that being more conceptual require explanation. To a certain extent that is embedded in the titles of these works Light Lines from Light Arranged by Chance of last year, but that merely whets one’s curiosity about what appears to be completely random abstraction.


Light Lines continues a series Light Arranged by Chance. A mechanical, camera-less, photogram process exposes 10 x 8 inch colour transparency film protected in a light-proof box. It moves systematically on a motorised tray under the lid of the box in which openings, 1mm x 4mm rectangles, been etched – a little like the shadow mask on a cathode ray television screen invented in 1938 by German Werner Flechsig – to permit entry of coloured flash separately into each rectangle. 11,500 flashes build up to produce the resulting image and as there is a variation in the sequence of the exposure of each colour, the two colour transparencies are slightly different in distribution of colours. To view them stereoscopically is interesting, in that the variation ‘pops’ and segments of the image recede or advance dramatically and ‘shimmer’ at certain points across the field.

To look back at his early work is to see Shirreff’s consistent interest in variation, here manifested simply in shadows on a white sheet placed between the camera and the setting sun. Where some would be satisfied with the abstract effect, he presents us with a sequence which begs comparison and reveals a process.

2009 Moving Shadows 1 : 2, 2009
Neil Shirreff (2009) Moving Shadows
Neil Shirreff (2009) Moving Shadows

Other series pursue dissimilitude and devation in other phenomena in the English environment, from sunlight slanting low across the vibrant greens of verdant golf courses in Scotland (2005/6) or of the moss growing on forest trees felled in the storms of 1987.

Neil Shirreff (2005) North Berwick Golf Course, 17th Hole, Scotland from the series Links Land
Neil Shirreff (2006) Tain Golf Course, 11th Hole, Scotland from the series Links Land

His later work, then, imposes ever more control, and refinement, and we can see this develop from observations made “in the wild”. For Tourist Sights he duplicates a setup of camera, tripod and mirrored ball on a stand installed in each of several of the cliché tourist postcard and Instagram sites around London including Leicester and Trafalgar Squares, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Saint Paul’s, the Millennium Wheel and the Tate Gallery. Because the support for the ball has been removed in Photoshop and numbers of takes in each location from varying angles are superimposed, the variation becomes one of overall colour, rather than anything more specific to the location.

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Neil Shirreff (2010 from the series Tourist Sights

His later work, then, presents, more controlled version of these situations and are the product of an ingenious mind, one that is part engineer, part conceptual artist, part photographer. And the results prompt considerations of the nature of photosensitive, especially photochemical, materials and their reactions to light.

Fragmented Paintings is remarkably oblique; by scattering mirror fragments across the floor in the path of projected images of Gauguin paintings, each artwork was dissembled to become detached specks of colour on the ceiling. Shirreff made multiple exposures of these on film and the results bare the same relation to the original artwork as do his Tourist Sights to the on-site appearance of the locations; a spectral array.

Neil Shirreff  (2013) Light Rings

Light Rings is the project in which Shirreff uses a record player to first mechanise the process and, with Light Lines, completes the project Light Arranged by Chance. In this series light sensitive colour photographic paper is exposed with a flashgun to fire light through 12 different coloured gels into holes arranged in the segment of a disc, five flash exposures for each colour.  Though the process is repeated identically for each ring of each circle, the arrangement of each resulting colour image is determined by chance.

Neil Shirreff  (2013) Apparatus for the creation of Light Rings.

Shirreff’s deconstruction of the colour process is ingenious and eccentric, but it requires a conceptual leap to understand its ramifications. Digital imaging practitioners are as familiar, through their workflows, with the makeup of a colour image as those who relied on proprietary, ready-made chemical materials, but also aware of a variety of colour spaces; RGB, CMYK and Lab being three possibilities. This awareness, reflected upon by Shirreff’s curiousity yields provocative ideas about colour.

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