Sunday, 20 December 2015

Recreating Selma

When I was researching Mariano Fortuny one image kept coming up; a woman in a vivid gold dress with, rather bizarrely, a matching cardigan.

Mrs Selma Schubart by Alfred Stieglitz, 1907. Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art

At first I was just horrified by the idea of teaming something as iconic as a Delphos dress with something as mundane as a cardi, but when I looked at the source, something else finally dawned on me; this was a colour image, taken in 1907. I hadn’t realised that colour photography began so early. And so I fell down the rabbit hole of researching autochromes.

Alfred Stieglitz was clearly a very early adopter of the autochrome process, as it was patented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 and first marketed four years later. The process used special glass plates covered with tiny grains of potato starch dyed green, orange-red, and blue-violet, with the gaps filled with lamp-black.

Microphoto of an autochrome plate, from Wikimedia Commons

The images captured on the plates could not be reproduced; each autochrome was a one-off image, and could only be viewed with a strong light source such as a magic lantern. The colour filtering also required long exposures, which made it impossible to use for moving images. As a result, the autochrome process never became widely adopted. Nonetheless, to an early twentieth century audience, seeing images in colour must have been amazing. To an early twenty-first century costume nerd, seeing clothing as it was worn 100 years ago, rather than on mannequins in a museum, is also pretty amazing.

Portrait of a woman, 1915, Auckland, by Robert Walrond. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (A.018212)

The novelty of colour images, and the rich colours achieved, seem to have lent themselves to exotic subjects.

Ouled Nail, image © Museé Albert Khan

Woman in assuit costume c. 1915, image © George Eastman House Photography

Dancer in Ghawazee costume, 1920, by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont

"Cleopatra" in Domain cricket ground, 1914, Auckland, by Robert Walrond. Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (A.018196)

Image: “Cleopatra,” 1914, Auckland, by Robert Walrond/Te Papa

You can see more images from the Te Papa collection, and read about it, here and here.

The starch grains give autochrome images a hazy, slightly pointillist effect. As well as compiling a great collection of autochromes on Pinterest, Jen Thompson of Festive Attyre has created some wonderful faux autochromes on her blog, which you can see here.

All this comes neatly back to the first image. When I was finishing my entry for the Silver Screen challenge, it struck me. I had a Delphos dress. I had shoes with buckles (almost). I most definitely had a cardigan. All I needed was a plain belt and some fabric flowers. . .

So, after we'd taken the 'proper' photos, Mum and I headed to a nearby park. The bench was rather too modern, but that turned out to be the least of my problems. Oddly, the hardest thing was keeping a straight face. My usual expression in front of a camera varies between, “Please don’t point That Thing at me”, and, “Haven’t you finished pointing That Thing at me yet?”, so in theory recreating Mrs Schubart’s look of resigned gloom should have been a piece of cake. In practice I just had a terrible fit of giggles every time Mum tried to take a picture. We got there in the end, though, and a combination of filters and fiddling with colour balance did the rest!


  1. How interesting! Love your recreation!

  2. Oh how utterly fabulous! I love all the history concerning the autochromes! Thank you for the lesson! And your recreation is fabulous!! I would have loved to have been there for the fit of giggles! I must say though, I like your blue better than the original gold!

    1. Thank you Gina. There's lots of information out there about how the colours used in the starch dye lent themselves better to reproducing some colours than others - red and green subjects seem to have been popular, and blue less so.

      That was pretty much the most serious expression I could muster, my poor mum was almost driven to distraction!