Columbia University, USA
Leaving the Shadow Behind: Autochrome Portraits and Diascope Viewing
This essay explores the photographic portraits and their modes of display by the early color photographer, Mary Olive Edis (British, 1876-1955) during the Edwardian period. Edis specialized in Autochrome portraits that she displayed in her patented Diascope viewer (Fig 1).1 This display device maximizes the life-like quality of the color plate photograph2 camera-recorded color is both a ‘real’ and spectacular attraction.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, color plate photographs were often displayed in such ‘diascope’ viewing devices (Fig 2).3 Because the photographic image was developed on transparent glass plates, they required a source of illumination. In essence, a diascope viewer functions as both album and frame, it is a device for both storing and exhibiting color-plate photographs. It combines mnemonic elements of the personal photographic album, but also physical qualities of a cabinet and even a cinematic quality of viewing. More than a ‘mirror with a memory,’ I argue, the diascope conditions the viewing experience temporally and spatially as an event to a greater extent than a photographic print within a frame or a photographic image in a book.4 A screen, as Casetti notes, marks site of becoming, rather than a static ontology. Much like Athena’s shield in the Perseus myth of Medusa, the shield is both protection and a technology of indirect sight; instead of hiding, it shows.’5 Within the diascope viewer, the photographic object as
1 Mary Olive Edis ‘Method of viewing Autochrome transparencies (colour photographs on glass).’ Great Britain, Patent no. 17,132. ‘Patent News,’ British Journal of Photography, 1914.
2 Tom Gunning, ‘Colorful Metaphors: the Attraction of Color in Early Silent Cinema,’ Fotogenia 1.
Sally Stein, ‘Autochromes without apologies: Henrich Kühn’s experiments with the mechanical palette,’ History of Photography 18.2 (1994). Camera-recorded color presented a larger conceptual issue for photography in which color had been supplemental in applied methods, ‘the physical problem of colour reproduction was, by means of this technology, an accomplished fact, one that had to be reckoned with as soon as one decided to load a camera with the autochrome plate.’ 130-131.
Laura Anne Kalba, Color in the Age of Impressionism: commerce, technology, and art (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017). Kalba writes of the autochrome as part of a colorful everyday modernity at the turn of the twentieth century. See also Sarah Street and Joshua Yumibe, Chromatic Modernity: Color, Cinema, and the Media of the 1920s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).
3 H.F. Perkins, ‘Methods of Exhibiting Colour Transparencies,’ The British Journal of Photography: Colour Photography Supplement LXII 2918 (April 7, 1916), np. Additional methods of display include ‘Exhibition Cabinet’ and metal frame lampshades.
4 Erkki Huhtamo, ‘Toward a History of Peep Practice,’ in A Companion to Early Cinema (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). Model for alternative viewing practices beyond medium-specific boundaries of photography and film.
5 Francesco Casetti, ‘Primal Screens,’ in Screen Genealogies- From Optical Device to Environmental Medium, Craig Buckley, et. al. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019).