The Dawn of Colour

Janet and Iris Laing c.1910

The National Media Museum’s exhibition The Dawn of Colour: Celebrating the Centenary of the Autochrome opened today. The exhibition is sponsored by N.M. Rothschild & Sons, Lionel de Rothschild (1882-1942) having been an enthusiastic Autochome photographer, 700 of whose Autochromes are held by the Rothschild Archive.

The web site is beautiful to look at, with numerous examples of Autochromes and some welcome biographies of the photographers. It is good too on the technical details, with some downloadable PDFs including a 1908 instruction booklet. And the exhibition book, on the Rothschild collection, promises to be a treasure. There’s also information on Auguste and Louis Lumière, inventors of the Autochrome process as well as the inventors of the Cinématographe.

OK, that’s enough posts on colour photography. Back to the cinema…

Sentiment and Sensation


The Museum of Modern Art in New York has an exhibition of posters for silent films, Sensation and Sentiment: Cinema Posters 1912–14. It runs May 23–August 27, 2007. The posters come from the renowned collection of Dutch film distributor Jean Desmet (1875–­1956), and advertise American, British, Danish, French, and Italian films dating from 1912 to 1914. The exhibition also has rare photographs documenting the earliest sites of film exhibition in the United States. The exhibition is accompanied by a related film series in July and August. The wonderful poster above for Bout-de-Zan et le crime au telephone (1914) is all that’s illustrated on the website, alas.

(Bout-de-Zan is the little boy in the picture. He was played by René Poyen (1908-1968), who portrayed the character, a child always distinctively dressed as an adult, in a string of short comedies made by Louis Feuillade for Gaumont)

Stephen Bottomore’s The Origins of the War Film

On Thursday 24th May, at 16.15, Stephen Bottomore defends his PhD dissertation Filming, Faking and Propaganda: The Origins of the War Film 1897-1902 at Utrecht University. The thesis deals with the challenges early filmmakers had to face when trying to represent military action at a time when warfare itself changed drastically: no more the heroic charges and clearly defined battlefields. And very soon, officials took measures to regulate and censor reporting. Stephen Bottomore discusses the Greco-Turkish War (1897), the battle of Omdurman (1898), the Spanish-American War (1898), the Philippine War (1899-1902), the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Boxer Uprising (1900). With regard to factual filmmaking, the thesis describes the ongoing professionalisation of war reporting, where one encounters adventurous amateurs, embedded journalists, freelance photographers and finally trained and experienced cameramen sent abroad by production companies. Another aspect of war-related imagery that is discussed extensively are “representations”, or fakes, ranging from rather blunt attempts to sell staged pictures as “the real thing” to emphatically stylized allegorical scenes. It is amazing to see how in such a short period new kinds of representational strategies, ways of filmmaking, and forms of exhibition emerged. Stephen Bottomore presents an extraordinary wealth of documents, this is most certainly the most thorough exploration of the subject to date.

On Friday 25th May, a workshop will be organised by the Onderzoeksinstituut voor Geschiedenis en Cultuur (OGC) and the Department of Media and Cultural Studies, Utrecht University: Controlling Early Cinema in Times of War, speakers being Stephen Bottomore (UU), Karel Dibbets (UvA), Nicholas Hiley (University of Kent, Canterbury) and Sabine Lenk (Filmmuseum Düsseldorf).

The regional dimension in early cinema

Domitor logo

The theme and dates for the 10th Domitor conference have been anounced. The Regional Dimension in Early Cinema will take place 17-21 June 2008 at Perpignan, France and Girona, Spain (they say Catalonia). The notice on the Domitor site reads like a draft, but what they are looking for is described thus:

Possible contributions could deal with production modes, studies concerning distribution and exploitation in a micro-historical context, as well as studies on the representation of regional aspects in film. However, the regional dimension should be the major theme, and not a mere pretext.

The official languages will be English, French and Catalan. There’s a rough outline of the conference, which will be in Girona for the first three days before hopping across the border to Perpignan for the rest, but no call for papers as yet.

Domitor is an international organisation dedicated to the study of early cinema, defined as cinema in all its aspects to 1915. ‘Domitor’ was the name suggested to the Lumière brothers by their father Antoine to give to their invention, before they decided that Cinématographe sounded a little classier. Hard to imagine that we all might have ended up going to see the movies at the local domitor…

Also, Domitor has a yearly graduate student writing award (see link to Word document at the bottom of their page), for any subject on cinema before 1915, with a prize of $500. Fascinatingly, you don’t have to be a member of Domitor to submit an essay, but you do need to be a member if you want to collect your prize. The deadline is 1 August 2007.

Nine out of Ten

Decomposing nitrate film

On May 21st, at the Cannes Film Festival, Martin Scorsese announced the forming of a World Cinema Foundation to restore neglected treasures of world cinema. The Foundation builds on the Film Foundation, which Scorsese established in 1990, with such luminaries as Sydney Pollack, Woody Allen, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood and Francis Ford Coppola. The Foundation has been responsible for establishing funds to save several key films, but as Scorsese pointed out: “90 percent of American silent movies have been lost, as have half of all U.S. movies made before 1950”.

It’s a startling figure – indeed higher than the usual figure of 80% of all silent films being lost that is usually quoted (the Library of Congress gives this figure for American silents). In truth, it is a very difficult figure to determine, not least with the variable quality of national filmographies, nor does the figure includes non-fiction films (as the Film Foundation site admits, “As for shorts, documentaries, newsreels, and other independently produced, ‘orphan’ films, there is simply no way of knowing how many have been lost”). But you only have to consider that less than 4% of all Japanese films made before 1945 are thought to survive, and maybe 90% for silents worldwide is a fair figure.

Of course, very few have seen even a small percentage of the 10% that survives, not least because much of it has not been restored or made available to view. The profileration of silent DVDs that we’re so fortunate to have access to can blind us to the substantial number of films that we haven’t had the chance to see. There also needs to be an element of realism here. Not every silent film was a masterpiece. Every ‘lost’ silent film which gets put back on the screen seems to be hailed as being an inevitable work of art, but silent movies were much the same as movies today – a few gems, a lot of proficiency, and a large amount of dross.

But the overall lesson must be one of shame at how we can allow a medium, the original experience of which is within the memory of some still living, to be disposed of so easily. And here we are in 2007, as cavalier as ever, now failing to get to grips with the preservation of digital media. What percentage of all emails has been preserved? What will happen to the YouTube ‘archive’? Where will all these blogs be in ten years time?

Here’s a report from the International Herald Tribune. Amusingly, several news reports have misquoted Scorsese and stated that “all American films made before 1950 are gone“. One or two dozy entertainment editors out there…

Searching for Albert Kahn

Albert Kahn

Albert Kahn, from © Albert Kahn Museum – Département of Hauts-de-Seine

A lot of people are coming to this blog in search of information on Albert Kahn, following the BBC4 series The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn. The Kahn collection is best known for its still photographs, which largely lie outside the concerns of The Bioscope, but he did employ motion picture cameramen too (as well as acquiring film from other collections), so here’s a short account of his Archives de la Planète, and some pointers on where to find out more.

Albert Kahn was a millionaire Parisian banker and philanthropist who decided to use his fortune to document the world in photographs. Between 1908 and 1931 he sent out still photographers and motion picture cameramen to create a photographic record of the globe. The project was supervised by geographer Jean Brunhes, who employed around eleven cameramen who visited forty-eight countries and brought back 72,000 Autochrome colour plates, 4,000 steroscopic views, and 600,000 feet of film. They also acquired film from commercial companies, including newsreels and scientific films. Kahn called the project the Archives de la Planète. Kahn lost his money in the Depression, bringing an end to the project, but the collection survived. It has remained remarkably little known, particularly the film component, but a steady trickle of academic interest in recent years has now been followed by the success of the BBC4 series, which has rightly startled people with the beauty of the images and the sheer extent of what they recorded.

Most of the film collection is in the form of unedited rushes of actuality subjects: everything from film taken in Mongolia in 1912-13, to the signing of the Briand-Kellogg Pact in 1928, A.J. Balfour visiting Zionist colonies in Palestine in 1925, fisheries in Newfoundland in 1922, and dancers in Cambodia in 1921. Kahn’s cameramen included Stephane Passet, Lucien Le Saint, Léon Busy, Frédéric Gadmer, Camille Sauvageot and Roger Dumas.

There is an informative and thoughtful article by Teresa Castro, ‘Les Archives de la Planète: A cinematographic atlas’, which is a good place to start, and has some beautiful Autochrome illustrations.

There is no Les Archives de la Planète or Albert Kahn website with a collection of the images on show (update: the BBC has now created The site has some pages on the Musée Albert Kahn giving basic information and access details, in French. [Another update: the link is now]

The Museum is located in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, and is renowned for its beautiful gardens. There is a plain official web page describing these, but you are better off reading the evocative New York Times article, ‘Philosophy in Bloom’, by Jacqueline McGrath, which describes a visit to the gardens (which are apparently not to easy to find).

World War I autochrome

Autochrome of French troops during First World War, from

If you are entranced by Autochromes, there are several good sites to visit. This year (2007) sees the centenary of the Autochrome, recognised by [link now dead]. The highly recommended Luminous Lint photography site has an explanation of the ingenious Autochrome photographic process, involving the use of dyed potato starch grains acting as colour filters, which helped give them their particular ‘impressionist’ effect.

The site World War I Color Photos has some astonishing images from a conflict we generally only imagine in monochrome. Australian and French First World War Autochromes are reproduced on the Captured in Colour site (which also displays the Paget plate colour system). And there are more First World War Autochromes on the Heritage of the Great War site (though do note this site mixes these up with other coloured images, including artifically-coloured postcards).

The Library of Congress has a page on the restoration of Autochromes. There is an exhibition of the expressive Autochrome work of Gabriel Veyre at (Veyre did not work for Kahn but was previously a film cameraman with the Lumière brothers, inventors of the Autochrome). George Eastman House has an online exhibit of eighty Autochromes from the Charles Zoller collection, reproduced in high resolution. The Galerie-Photo site has an exhibition of Autochromes (originally stereoscopic i.e. 3D), with some interesting technical observations.

American academic Paula Amad has written “Cinema’s ‘sanctuary’: From pre-documentary to documentary film in Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète (1908-1931)” for the journal Film History, the best single source for information on Kahn’s project, and is writing a book on the collection.

The site [link now dead] doesn’t have that much information, but it does tell you in detail how to make your own Autochromes the original way (it’s not easy). If you don’t want to try the original potato starch method, why not use Photoshop? will show you how.

Pioneering scientific filmmaker Dr Jean Comandon was one of those who worked for Kahn, late on in the project, as the Institut Pasteur explains (in French).

Definitely the book on Autochromes to buy is John Wood’s The Art of the Autochrome. There will be no more beautiful title on your bookshelves.

Lastly, look out for the National Media Museum’s forthcoming exhibition The Dawn of Colour: Celebrating the Centenary of the Autochrome, which opens on May 25th.

Update (April 2008): The BBC has now produced an Albert Kahn website,, which has information on Kahn, the autochromes and the Albert Kahn museum, as well as promoting the new BBC book The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age. No plans have been announced for a DVD release of the BBC series, presumably owing to licensing issues. However, the Kahn museum section of the new BBC site refers to some DVDs, without going into further details. It has been rumoured that the museum was planning to produce some DVDs of its own, showcasing its Autochrome colour photographs (and its films?). This may be a reference to these, which do not seem to have been published as yet.

Another update (March 2009): There are faint rumours of a possible DVD release, in some form. However, the original The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn series is now available on DVD from the BBC, but only from its educational service, BBC Active, where it is priced at an eye-watering £1,125 for 9x50mins DVDs – the intended market is institutions only. This existence (and price) of this would suggest that any subsequent commercial release to the public will be highlights in some form.

And another update (September 2009): There is now a proper website for the Musée Albert Kahn, at It’s all in French, but includes several examples of the autochromes, photographs of the museum and gardens, a biography of Kahn, and news of exhibitions etc.

Final (?) update (September 2009)
Good news – the BBC has brought out the series on DVD. The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn is a 3-disc set (PAL, region 2), divided into nine parts, running 462mins. It’s released by 2 entertain, which is part-owned by BBC Worldwide.

More Ancestors on Board

Ancestors on Board

As reported in an earlier post, an important new research resource was published this year by the UK’s National Archives and Ancestors on Board will eventually become a record of everyone who sailed out of a British port (including all Ireland to 1921) on long-distance voyages from 1890 to 1960, taken from the records of the Board of Trade. The first tranche of data released covered 1890-1899; now the site covers 1900-1919 as well. So now there are even more opportunities for historians of silent cinema to track the to and from of actors, filmmakers and executives going to America from Britain. You can find young hopefuls Charles Chaplin and Stanley Jefferson (soon to be Stan Laurel) sailing out in 1912 with the Fred Karno troupe, future Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) hoping to find his fortune in 1899, and D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer returning to America in 1917 after filming scenes for Hearts of the World in Britain. The name search is free, but there is a charge for viewing images of the ships’ lists or transcripts.

Nineteen (Obscure) Frames that Changed the World

In October 1888 the French-born inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince recorded what is thought to be the first ‘film’ in the history of cinema. His subject was Leeds Bridge – the ebb and flow of humanity – people going about their daily business unaware that their motions were being inscribed into history. The surviving frames of this footage are owned by the National Media Museum in Bradford where Curator of Cinematography, Michael Harvey, has been working with New York video artist Ken Jacobs for 18 months to provide footage for the unique exhibition Nineteen (Obscure) Frames That Changed the World. As the blurb puts it, “Ken Jacobs probes the magnitude and infinity of the existing frames, using a unique 3D projection system (with 3d glasses) to reveal hidden beauty and unlock great waves of motion. Ken Jacobs’ films, performances and installations inspire a sense of awe and mystery that audiences must have felt when confronted by moving images at the very start of cinema.” The exhibition opens on Thursday 24 May and runs from 25 May–1 June, 11.30am–6.30pm with free entry. Further information here.

Moving Pictures in Westminster

The Moving Pictures exhibition on the film and cinema business is London before the First World War will be on show at the City of Westminster Archives Centre 5-30 June. The exhibition, which was previously shown at Hornsey Library and Hampstead Museum, focusses on the highly active film industry and cinema business in London before 1914, with an emphasis on the relationship with local communities. The exhibition is based on The London Project, a research project hosted by Birkbeck College, London, which resulted in The London Project database of film businesses and cinemas in London before the First World War.

There are associated talks taking place at the Centre on 19 and 26 June, at 6.00 pm (admission free). The Archives Centre is located here.

For the weekend of 23-24 June the exhibition will move temporily from the Archives Centre to feature as part of West End Live, in Leicester Square.