An ‘absolute impression of reality’: Capturing the wonder of the stereo-autochrome [EN]

Catlin Langford

 

Released commercially in 1907, the autochrome was the first widely available colour photography medium. It
revolutionised the possibilities of photography, allowing individuals to capture realistic depictions of the
world in all its colours. Autochromes were projected for both entertainment and educational purposes,
providing illustrations for topics as diverse as botany to round-the-world journeys. Described as
‘uncommonly realistic’, the images inspired fascination and acclaim. This was especially true of stereoscopic
autochromes that combined the stereoscopes’ sense of depth and three-dimensionality with the
autochrome’s full spectrum of colours. The result was a sensation. Compared to witchcraft, stereo-
autochromes were described as ‘startling’ in their production of an ‘absolute impression of reality’, enabling
an immersive, realistic picture and experience of the world for the viewer. I am currently undertaking a project
to catalogue the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection of approximately 2,500 autochromes. Within this
collection are a series of stereo-autochromes depicting a range of subjects, from English gardens to scenes of
Holland. Owing to their inherent fragility and significant light sensitivity, these works cannot be exhibited. For
this reason, this cataloguing project allows for these works to be experienced once again through digital
means, whilst simultaneously ensuring their preservation for the future. This paper will seek to capture the
wonder surrounding the stereo-autochrome in the early 20th century and will consider the ongoing work to
preserve and digitise these objects in the present age.

 

Catlin Langford is Curatorial Fellow in Photography, supported by The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation at the
Victoria and Albert Museum. In this role, Langford is focusing on the significant series of autochromes held in
the Royal Photographic Society collection. Langford previously held positions at the Royal Collection Trust,
Witt and Conway Libraries and the National Trust of South Australia. She has presented on photography at
conferences and organisations across the United Kingdom, including at the University of Oxford, the
University of Westminster, the National Galleries of Scotland and Birkbeck, University of London. She holds a
BA and BA (Honours) from the University of Adelaide. She completed her MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art
in 2016, focusing on the curation of vernacular photographs.

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