In Europe, this year is one to commemorate the beginning of the Great War, with much reflection about the political and cultural atmosphere leading up to World War I 100 years ago.
While the earth has become a different place to live in the past century – with four times as many people, vastly more efficient transportation infrastructure and an increasing globalization that, at least from appearances, has made populations more similar (as a self-proclaimed brilliant professor once told me, “the entire world is becoming global”) – there are also those who argue that we face equally challenging political and cultural challenges similar to that time.
Given the above, it is also interesting to understand the parallels between the technologies of that time, and, since we’re all interested in photography here on The Luminous Landscape, how the photographic medium is/was undergoing transformation – and how it was being used to try and bridge cultures – then and now.
The overarching narrative of our era with regards to photographic technology, and technology in general, is miniaturization and social connectivity. Time and time again (and frequently on LL), we read about how mobile phones are the most popular and often used photographic devices and how they are replacing compact cameras. Their appeal is obvious – no matter where in the world (as long as there is an internet connection), the user can snap, upload, and share images instantly with friends, family or the public at large. This phenomenon – and further “democratization” of photography – has created an image boom of unprecedented proportion: it is said that 10% of all photographs ever taken have been taken in the past 12 months. The cultural effect is significant, with political suppression shared at the same moment as it occurs, with the whole world ready to comment, interject its opinion, and, at times, act.
What was the state of photography in 1914? While the 35mm camera was invented, most cameras remained large studio contraptions, color photography had not yet made its widespread public debut, and most people’s interaction with photography was either non-existent or simply to document life’s milestones.
But a colorful revolution was at hand courtesy of Auguste and Louis Lumiére, working away at their laboratories in Lyon, France. While the first color photograph was created in 1861 by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who shot and combined multiple images taken with different colored filters, for years thereafter the production of color images remained complicated and expensive until 1907, when the Lumiére brothers began marketing their autochrome product. The autochrome was revolutionary, more simple and economical to produce, and shockingly innovative in its use of such a common and banal ingredient – potato starch (As the American author M.F.K. Fisher once stated, “Potatoes are one of the last things to disappear in times of war, which is probably why they should not be forgotten in times of peace.”).
The Lumiére brothers spread millions of grains of starch – which had been stained violet, green or red – over a standard glass photo plate. The starch acted as tiny color filters, producing a full color image with a beautiful, painterly depth. Amazingly, looking at an autochrome plate in a microscope looks not dissimilar to our current color filter array over our digital sensors (though more random).
While new technologies allow the basis for societal advancement, they also need champions, individuals that find (and finance) applications that show the world the value of such inventions, and the autochrome was no different. As eloquently and exhaustively portrayed by David Okuefuna in The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn, released in 2008 by BBC Books, Albert Kahn was such a champion. A French banker of considerable means, Kahn blended his interest in cross-cultural education as a means to cultivating greater world peace, creating a grant program for foreign travel for young academics around the same time. When Kahn learned of the autochrome, he immediately understood how his passion for photography and this technological advancement could help him realize his overall goals.
“When Kahn learned of the invention of the autochrome, which made colour photography portable for the first time, he believed that he now had at his disposal another educational tool that could help to promote his internationalist and pacifist convictions.”
And the rest is simply wonderful history. For the next two decades, Kahn spent his fortune on The Archives of the Planet, sending photographers across the planet to document societies on the brink of war and profound change. The thousands of autochromes that survive from the project are striking for their honesty and simplicity, revealing regular people within their surroundings, with typical dress and in the midst of various daily activities. While the project covered many exotic locales, perhaps the most revelatory images are the ones of Europe, which at the time was still highly regionalized and, in most areas, impoverished.
Out of Kahn’s images of France came the concept of La France Profonde — as defined by a more manual society grounded in la terre — which formed the backbone of France’s pre-industrial society. During my own time in France over the past two decades, it is this rural France that resonates for me, as opposed to its large cities, which have more thoroughly assimilated into the world’s modern urban aesthetic.
While I am primarily a black and white rangefinder photographer – and took the majority of the images accompanying this article with a Leica M9 – the autochrome look appealed to me with its subtle rendition of light, contrast and color. While my color images have none of the authenticity of potato starch autochrome processing (Color Efex Pro sliders are my modern equivalent), I hope that through subject and style they are able to somewhat approximate the aesthetic of Lumiere’s creation.
Amidst the current far-right political rhetoric, there is an “old France” and a “new France”: a rural, traditional land of common identity and hard-working values; and a modern country suffering from uncontrolled immigration, high unemployment, a welfare state, globalization and low self-esteem. It’s no great revelation, of course, to anyone with enough intelligence to understand beyond the chatter, that neither France ever really existed (or exists) in such black-and-white terms. As always, the reality (as in photography) lies somewhere in between, within the shades of grey.
Similar to Kahn, but years later, in the 1960s Hans Sylvester photographed rural France in black and white, a collection subsequently published as C’était Hier. His images are simple but poignant observations of everyday life, framed within the harsh light and shadow, and rocky landscapes, of the south.
The beauty of modern France is in the assimilation of foreign cultures into its own, its simultaneous pride of heritage and embrace of a multi-cultural Europe in a world continually more interconnected, and a realization that what was beautiful about the old remains beautiful in the new. While nostalgia is all too easy a light to simply bathe the past in a warm glow, better to study these historical documents to appreciate and understand how far our society has come, and how far it still needs to go.
From Sylvester: “Dans l’arbre en fête, tout ce que l’on cueille à la main est une récolte de lumière.” (For a tree ripe with fruit, everything you pick by hand is a harvest of light.)
Aaron C. Greenman
Aaron C. Greenman (e-mail), a photographer for 25+ years who works primarily with a Leica digital rangefinder and 35mm lens, has lived and worked on four continents and is currently based in Belgium and France. More of his portfolio images can be viewed on his website, and he has several books available for the iPad (hereand here). Custom prints of his work are also available for purchase on request.