August 14: What fin-de-siècle medium would reconcile ambitions of scientists, painters and photographers?
Scientists were making extraordinary claims about the nature of visual perception.
The urge to become ‘fine artists’ was felt keenly by photographers at the end of the nineteenth century.
Since the mid-century, painters had felt threatened by the advent this industrial-era medium that could short-cut the realism for which they trained and strove.
They fiercely defended their tenure of the Beaux Arts from any incursion from pretenders who might claim that what had come out of their lenses was ‘Art’.
And indeed, ‘pretenders’ there were, in the form of the Pictorialists, the name of their movement (derived from the mid 17th century pictorial, from late Latin pictorius, from Latin pictor ‘painter’) headlining their ambition to make images like paintings. But to make ‘paintings’ of photography they had to resort to all kinds of subterfuge.
Above all, they faced the problem of achieving anything like the fulsome gamut of pigment colours available in oils, pastels or watercolour. Gum bichromate was one way of rendering the photographed image in such pigments, and bromoil another. Hand-colouring had been practised since the days of the daguerreotype. But alas, there had been little success in making a true colour image directly in the camera. Yes, as early as 1861 James Clerk Maxwell had demonstrated the potential by superimposing lantern projections of three coloured transparencies, in order to visually reconstitute the colours of the objects he photographed to produce full colour images, but in practice it was unsatisfactory.
It followed in 1868-69 that Louis Ducos du Hauron and Charles Cros both realised that an object photographed through filters dyed three different colours could be rendered in colour in an image printed from the negatives by recombining the three colour components into a fully coloured image in inks, in photolithography, or coloured gelatin transparencies on paper. Others followed this path, though confounded by the need to adjust for the varying sensitivity of emulsions to different colours, to carefully align negatives and to match up transparencies and to register plates in printing.
While photographers were grappling for forty years with their colour problem, painters too were questioning the chromatic phenomenon and were adjusting their approach in relation to theories of vision of the kind expounded by scientists Maxwell and Young. There was experimentation that led them away from the rendering of light effects in glazes of oil over a dark ground espoused by the Academy, and then beyond the broken-palette tonalism of the ‘Realists’.
The Impressionists drew on Maxwell’s theories and their discussion by the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1839 and by the German physicist Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke in 1866. Discoveries that lines and dots of colour could be blended in the eye, not just on the palette, was brought to the attention of Seurat, Signac, and Pissarro by von Helmholtz‘s writings and Ogden Rood in his influential work Modern Chromatics (1879), describing images in the eye as ‘mosaics, made up of an infinite number of points of light’.
Ignoring the ridicule of critics like Louis Leroy, they painted in pure un-muddied hues with distinct brushstrokes on a white ground, paying attention to colour harmonies and to contrasts, such as that of a red-orange dot against a field of blues and greens that makes the disc of the early sun seen through maritime haze dazzle so in Claude Monet‘s Impression, sunrise.
Not just novel in its evocation of pure sensation, the content of Monet’s painting — the busy port of Le Havre with its cranes and factory chimneys — is daringly iconoclastic; Modern.
It seems from the lookalike but unknown location (which might be Montluçon) in the image below that Antonin Personnaz has seen, and imitated, Monet’s picture. The unjustly overlooked photographer’s work is now on exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, until September 7th, 2020,
Born into a wealthy family of textile exporters and a partner in its thriving business all his working life, Personnaz’ real passion was in art, which he began collecting from the age of 21. Soon he became more interested in the innovations of the Impressionists and Post Impressionists, and by 1906 had acquired Le Pont d’Argenteuil by Claude Monet from Durand-Ruel for a bargain 20 francs.
A lover of art, but not a capable painter himself, he was inspired to take up photography in 1896 after encountering Constant Puyo, whom Personnaz dubbed the ‘Botticelli of Photography’ for his elysian art nouveau Pictorialism and his book Notes sur la Photographie Artistique, which tantalisingly explained how photography could be used to create works of art. Puyo’s practice involved those processes under the personal control of the photographer; Ozotype (using pigmented gelatine), Gum-Bichromate, Rawlins oil painting and platinotype by glycerine development to produce overall warm or cool tone, and some introduced local colour effects.
Other amateur and commercial photographers by the end of the nineteenth century were achieving naturalistic three-colour images on paper using the techniques employed by Puyo, and others including tricolour carbon, Pinatype (a dye transfer process), superimposed gelatine films on glass, Sinop (simplified collotype), colour collotype (a magnificent continuous-tone printing process), and half-tone printing. Most imprinted or transferred coloured dyes, pigments, or inks onto paper.
Around this time came another medium that best satisfied the Fine Art ambitions of Personnaz; the Lumière Brothers‘ Autochrome. It had the advantage of cleverly gathering the three filters required to produce a colour image — normally to generate three separate monochrome plates for a laborious printing process — on the one plate in the form of myriad dots of potato starch in red-orange, green, and blue-violet, a fine sifting of carbon dust to fill the spaces between the coloured grains, a coat of varnish and the monochrome emulsion layer. The developed emulsion acted as a modulated mask through which correct colours, mixtures of the coloured cells through which it had been exposed, were seen. Other single-plate colour processes, that of James McDonough of Chicago (1892) with ground shellack and of John Joly of Dublin (1894) with ruled lines came to nothing, but the Autochrome (meaning self-coloured), since it required only development methods familiar even to amateurs, took off.
Like the three colours it employs, the Autochrome satisfied three groups invested in the perception and application of colour, not just the photographers, but the painters and theorists too!
For the Impressionist painters this novel process validated their ideas. J. Arthur Hatt in The Colorist (1908), noted that unlike Maxwell’s additive method (three-coloured slides projected together); or the subtractive (the superimposing of three colours on paper); the Lumieres, Joly, and McDonough used what Hatt called the ‘juxtaposit’ technique, in which the colours were blended by being placed side by side; essentially the method of painting referred to as chromatic divisionism among the Impressionists.
The Autochrome apparent confirmed Impressionst theory, and that of Chevreul, and of other scientists of perception.
English Impressionist painter and art theorist Wynford Dewhurst wrote:
A startlingly effective example of the justification of this method came under my notice in London a little time ago. (New Gallery, Royal Photographic Society’s Annual Salon, 25 September 1907.) The new Lumiere colour photography was under demonstration, a man’s portrait being the object lesson upon the screen. His collar stood out particularly bright and white, yet no white was there. Upon close examination of the screen the effect was found to be due to the presence of some thousands of juxtaposed dots of three pure colours, viz., grass-green, scarlet, and bluish-violet. These three tints had combined, and formed in the eye and mind of the spectators the effect of dazzling white, thus establishing beyond shadow of doubt the accuracy of that chief fundamental law of impressionist painting which has hitherto been most ridiculed, namely, the principle of the juxtaposition of pure tints of colour.
Anne Hammond of the University of Oxford eloquently details this alignment in her 1991 paper ‘Impressionist theory and the autochrome’, in the journal History of Photography, but it is given its best aesthetic expression in this photograph, one being used to publicise the current Personnaz retrospective.
It shows the Impressionist Armand Guillaumin in the act of making one of his more significant works, his model posing, and unidentified friends who are perhaps other painters, among ferns on the bank of the Creuse, where Guillaumin made 140 paintings of its idyllic surrounds before the river was dammed in 1926. Personnaz photograph records the work below and the warm lazy atmosphere.
The blurred foliage betrays one of the disadvantages of the Autochrome; it required exposures around 50-100 times longer than monochrome plates. It was also expensive; although the prices varied between the countries and over time, autochromes generally cost four times the price of monochrome plates, and Robert Hirsch records that when marketed in New York City around 1910, a box of four 3 ¼ x 4-inch plates cost $1.20 (equivalent to $30 today!) and a box of 7 x 14-inch plates sold for $7.50, and Autochrome plates sold for the same price as a box of 12 Lumière black -and -white plates. That posed no problem to wealthy Personnaz, who between 1907-1936 produced more than a thousand, making him one of the most practised of Autochrome photographers during its 30-year vogue.
He developed approaches to overcome the short exposure latitude, shooting in duller weather, or in low, oblique sunlight. He urged..
“Let us not limit [the autochrome plate] to producing dazzling tones, let us also turn our eyes to the master landscapists: the Cazins, the Monets, the divine Corot […] Let us be inspired by their examples by seeking to translate the softest and most delicate colours in nature, and in this way we too will make a work of art.”
He would dodge back the sky during exposure with his dark slide or a piece of black card, an effect that is apparent in a little vignetting on the right-hand top corner of some of his pictures.
One can survey much of his output at the Société française de photographie though unhelpfully for the researcher, most dates given there are “1907-1936”. However the Médiatrice culturelle of the Musée des Beaux-Arts has confirmed that he made most of the Autochromes between 1907 or 1908, and 1914. His aspirations as an Impressionist photographer will be apparent in multiple images of a subject to which Monet was devoting many paintings around the same time; both artists used haystacks as a visual litmus of the effect of atmosphere on colour.
Extremes of weather posed no obstacle to the obsessive and intrepid Personnaz…
…and he was remarkably persistent in returning to the same subject through the seasons; exemplary and fascinating repeat photography in the landscape.
To compare the atmospheric scenes photographed by Personnaz with contemporary images made of the same subject in the more matter-of-fact digital form is to gauge the quality of his well-practiced vision.
To contemplate his work is to find a poetic and nostalgic evocation of ‘Vieille France’
But most striking is his use of subtle colour effects that lend atmosphere to images that often approach the impact of the work by the more famous painters, even that of more radical Post-Impressionists like Dufy.
Viewing an Autochrome was usually a solo affair, using a diascope, a felt-lined box which used a mirror to reflect the image facing a bright light source; the emulsion was dense, blocking 92.5% of the light.
Projection was an option only for those that could afford the electric arc-lamp illuminated device; usually photo clubs and societies. Caroline Fuchs notes that Pictorialists in Britain eschewed projection presumably for fear of being associated with less serious amateurs.
In France such stigma did not prevail, and Personnaz used projection as his sole form of exhibition. Though he wrote copiously in favour of the medium, he did not opt to have his pictures printed, unlike Briton Henry Essenhigh Corke whose Wild Flowers As They Grow reproduced in collotype was a success, resulting in five volumes and several editions followed by further publications on botanical subjects
By contrast, Personnaz’ subsequent absence from publication and survey shows accounts for his virtual disappearance from photo history. He saw projection as an advantage because his images could be seen at the scale of the paintings he emulated, and because ‘atmospheric depth is enhanced.’
The Lumières intended that the potato grains in the emulsion should be invisible to the eye (they’re about 4000 ppi in digital terms), but projected, the granularity and painterly effect would be pronounced. However, using the hot and powerful light source of an arc-lamp risked damage to the varnish-coated plate, as is evident in his picture of the Casino at Nice above. Projector manufacturers introduced water-cooling, but recommended that the slides be shown for a maximum of between twelve and thirty seconds, and it wasn’t until the 1936 that someone proposed air cooling with an electric fan, but too late; that year, the advent of Kodachrome colour transparency roll film was displacing the Autochrome.
For Personnaz, “the Autochrome plate sees…with the precursor eye [of the] valiant Impressionists”.
More about him, and my sources, can be found on the Wikipedia entry I have just started.