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11.1.05

The Great War in Color

An article (A.-L. L., La Grande Guerre en couleurs, January 6) in Le Figaro describes an exhibit of photographs from World War I, now at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris (sponsored by the Centre des monuments nationaux). What's so interesting about that? Mémoires en couleur de la Grande Guerre: Autochromes 1914–1918 brings together more than a hundred "autochromatic" photographs—an early form of color processing—of both military and civilian scenes from that era. Here is a partial translation:

Here you can discover the work of four artists interested in the first worldwide conflict, offering a representation of the war halfway between informative documentary and propaganda. The autochromatic plate, an invention of the Lumière brothers, was the first photographic process to record colors through additive synthesis. It was tested in 1904 and sold commercially beginning in 1907. This technique, in some ways the ancestor of the diapositve process, was mastered by photographers at the time, but besides having a higher cost it required very long sitting times, which quickly limited those using it. [...] Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville, Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, and Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud, restricted by the process's technical limitations, made shots from behind the front, showing the damage caused by the war, the daily life of civilians and soldiers, and the worldwide spread of the conflict.

The first two photographers worked for the Section photographique et cinématographique des armées, a service that was working in its first war. In 1917 they made photographs in Champagne, Picardy, Alsace, and Flanders. After the war, they joined Albert Kahn, founder of the world archive, and Paul Castelnau then became geographer for the Croisière noire organized by Citroën. Jules Gervais-Courtellemont was, in his own words, a professional photographer when he showed up at the front. He lingered, after the battle, on combat zones, ravaged countryside, and the dead. As a precursor, he edited beginning in 1915 two works on the conflict that remain the only ones to show color images. Finally, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud, director of the Section photographique et cinématographique des armées, devoted himself with particular care to representations of military life.
I have had no luck finding any images from this exhibit. Mémoires en couleur de la Grande Guerre: Autochromes 1914–1918 will be at the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, until May 15.

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