Smoke and Mirrors

Posted November 25, 2009 in

If you thought potato technology peaked with french fries and Chopin vodka, you are about to be surprised. Potatoes are part of a major breakthrough in photography, but this breakthrough happened over a century ago. In the early decades of the 20th century, tiny grains of potato starch were used to create a chromatic screen for photographers. This process, known as Autochrome, was created by the Lumière brothers in France, and was a huge improvement over existing methods, both in terms of ease and quality. In fact, it remained the main color process until the ’30s when multi-layer color films became the norm—and remains so today. Nevertheless, it was potato-screened photography that opened the door for the color boom, and the UCR/California Museum of Photography in Riverside has collected several of these old Autochrome images for an exhibit called “Smoke and Mirrors.” These early 20th century images, taken by California photographers like Will Connell and W. Edwin Gledhill, exemplify the beauty of the method, namely smoky prints that appear to be partly painted. They have, ironically, the very artistic qualities that so many modern photographers attempt to capture today. These images, though, are the real deal. Just make sure to leave the ketchup at home. 


“Smoke and Mirrors” at the UCR/California Museum of Photography, 3824 Main St., Riverside, (951) 827-4787; Thru Jan. 2


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