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Feb 18 2009

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Photochromie at the Hotel de Sens

This entry is written by my dear friend and guest blogger Marc Cogan:

Carolyne and I went together to a curious exhibition at the Hôtel de Sens in the Marais: “Photochromie: voyage en couleur 1876–1914,” that is, of nineteenth century color photographs. Until fairly recently, I labored under the misconception that until 1948, let’s say, the world existed in black and white. While my father naturally appeared to me in color in daily life, photos of him from World War Two proved that those events occurred in some black and white parallel universe.

Recently, to my surprise, I discovered that the Lumière brothers invented the first process for manufacturing color-sensitive emulsions in 1896. (Photos using their plates from the First World War make us look at those long ago scenes with an entirely new eye.) As it happens—to my second surprise—color photography antedates the Lumière brothers’ invention by several decades. Some 300 examples of these earliest color photos provide the content of this exhibit.

“Photochrome,” the name given this earlier process, involved taking the same photo through different color filters (three at least, more in certain versions of the process), with the resulting images inscribed onto separate plates, which would then be inked in different colors. As in a color lithograph, the final print was produced by running paper through the press for each of the colors.

The results are mixed, I would say. To have color images of scenes from the nineteenth century is, as you would imagine, astounding. But the process of multiple printing has the collateral effect of blurring the sharp lines of the original photograph. The final image loses some of its presence and conviction. It looks, in a word, less photographic; I’m happy that these photos exist, but I think I  prefer the Lumière brothers’ products.

Of course, the real star of the exhibit was the Hôtel de Sens itself. Going to the exhibit was merely a pretext for getting into the Hôtel, which has been closed to visitors for these last two years while undergoing repairs. Built for the Archbishop of Sens between 1475 and 1519, it is the most radiant example of late Gothic domestic architecture in the city of Paris. It is also home to the Bibliothèque Forney, the foremost research library in Paris for the fine and decorative arts.

(The photography exhibit is on until April 18.)

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