These 18 Autochrome Photos Will Transport You to Another Era

The method used to make these dreamy photographs resulted in a painting-like quality that not even today's best Instagram filters can replicate.

August and Louis Lumière were pioneers in photography. Legend has it that in 1895, when they premiered their first motion picture film of a train entering a station, audiences fled in terror, fearing they would be flattened by a "moving" train.

By 1907 they had turned their sights to colour photography, inventing the first camera capable of capturing life in color—the Autochrome Lumière.

"It's unique to see this period of time in colour," says Sara Manco, a photo archivist with National Geographic. "It has a hazy, ethereal-looking quality, like a painting that isn't actually a painting."

Autochromes owe much of this stylised look to the method in which photos were made. Using a glass plate coated with dyed red, green, and blue potato starches, a layer of emulsion was then added to the plate. These plates were then inserted into the camera, which had a lens that levelled the light that passed through the glass.

Because autochrome photography required a much longer exposure time than the film used to capture black-and-white images, subjects had to be still or slow moving.

"It's almost impossible to replicate today," says Manco. "You would have to be incredibly good at chemistry."

The technique became popular at National Geographic for its ability to showcase different parts of the world in vibrant colour. Autochromes were so widely used that the magazine now has one of the largest collections in the world, second only to Albert Kahn's Archive of the Planet.

The first autochrome photo published in the magazine was taken in 1914, by pioneering explorer Eliza Scidmore, during her trip to Japan. The depth of colour allowed her to showcase vibrant pink cherry blossoms and richly hued garments.

In her correspondence with magazine headquarters, she wrote of her photos: "I have had them made uniform in size and strongly coloured so that you can cover yourself all over with glory with another number in colour and thereby catch a few thousand more subscribers."

Exactly 14,980 autochromes sit in temperature-controlled rooms at National Geographic's headquarters, protecting them from damaging light, heat, and humidity. Of the copious glass plates in storage, 6,475 have been digitised through an initiative called Save the Archives.

The last recorded autochrome photo was submitted to National Geographic in 1939. By then, the popularity and ease of Kodachrome colour photography had rendered the autochromes no longer necessary, though their dreamy quality is hard to replicate.

A group of young people sit around a table in a Montafon Valley house.
PHOTOGRAPH B Y WILHELM TOBIEN

Guards in uniform participate in Corpus Christi day in Carinthia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WILHELM TOBIEN

A woman in a hennin, or hat, adjusts her gloves.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HANS HILDENBRAND

Three women cut, bind and gather sheaves in a field during harvest.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HANS HILDENBRAND

Two women walk through a garden.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MAYNARD OWEN WILLIAMS

A young woman in the dress of the Peloponnesian Greeks from Nemea.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MAYNARD OWEN WILLIAMS

A man in traditional Bavarian garb rows on Hintersee, a lake near Berchesgaden in Bavaria, Germany.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HANS HILDENBRAND

Mourners in traditional mourning garb sit in a carriage on their way to a funeral.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HANS HILDENBRAND

A troop of Pathfinders, also known as the Pathfinder and Rover Explorer International Scouts' Association (then an international club for young boys) gathers in a field.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HANS HILDENBRAND

A group of young women join hands for a traditional dance in Lauenburg, near Buckeburg, Schaumburg-Lippe, Germany.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HANS HILDENBRAND

Young Turkish girls pose for a portrait in colourful clothing.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JULES GERVAIS COURTELLEMONT

Farmer women clean their scythes near a river in Ellingen, Bavaria, Germany.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WILHELM TOBIEN

Cambodian dancers in traditional clothing perform on a terrace at Angkor Wat, near Siam Reap, Cambodia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY W. ROBERT MOORE

A young woman poses for a portrait near a canvas sack.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

A Swiss fisherman poses with his catch.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HANS HILDENBRAND

Visitors sit on an old cannon at a retirement home and hospital for veterans.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD HEWITT STEWART

Women at a school go about their daily tasks.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GUSTAV HEURLIN

Header Image: A visitor to The Munchner Haus, a destination on Germany's highest mountain, sits on a bench and smokes a pipe. PHOTOGRAPH BY HANS HILDENBRAND

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