Category Archives: Autochromes

Memories of Some French Gardens

Fillette en robe claire tenant le landau de ses poupées Alfred-Louis Bergoz 1907 – 1920  All images courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Earlier this year I published a collection of Eugène Blondelet’s atmospheric autochrome photographs of his family enjoying their garden in summer.   Now, I return to the archive at the Bibliothèque National de France to share some more autochromes of vernacular gardens from the early 20th century.

These photographs were taken by amateurs in France between 1907, when the Lumière brothers launched their autochrome process to the general public, and the early 1930s.  While they show some physical damage, and some deficiencies in their composition and exposure, these faults also evoke a sense of the past quite powerfully, capturing a particular time and place that otherwise would have disappeared.

The names of the photographers, the people they recorded and the locations of the gardens now exist only as fragments of information, or have become detached from these images altogether.  But these pieces of narrative still provoke a jolt of memory, allowing us a brief window into past lives, and happy moments enjoyed in their gardens many summers ago.

Fillette au chapeau de paille tenant une fleur Alfred-Louis Bergoz 1907 – 1920

This charming photograph shows a young girl in a light coloured dress and straw hat examining a garden flower.  In the intense sunlight, the asters and California poppies appear almost as pale as her clothes, but at the edge of the photograph their mauve and orange colours are revealed more clearly.

Garçonnet dans un jardin (unknown photographer) 1920 – 1930

The lawn is a dominant feature in this image of a garden, and the grass has been kept long, giving a relaxed feel to the space.  The lush green of the grass seems to have infused the whole image, including the young boy in his shorts and long white socks, posing for the photograph.

Trois enfants au bout d’une allée fleurie (unknown photographer) 1910 – 1920

The scale of this enormous climbing rose is emphasised by three small children, posing next to it in the shady walk-way.  Today, garden photographers avoid intense contrasts of light and shade by shooting early in the morning, or late in the day, but here the harsh sunlight, dark shadows and cascades of pink roses seem to capture the moment of summer heat perfectly.

Mère et son jeune fils dans le jardin (unknown photographer) 1920 – 1930

By the standards of modern photography, this portrait of a mother and boy in a garden is slightly out of focus, and over exposed, with the side of each person facing the sun bleached almost white.  This is repeated on the plants, highlighting their leaves, and revealing their texture, but the overall effect is both tranquil, and otherworldly.

Jeunes femmes en robe blanche dans un jardin (unknown photographer) 1907 – 1920

These two young women are posing in a flower garden, in front of a house.  The flowerbed, with pink and white roses, is edged with clipped box, a style that was also popular in England in the Edwardian period.  The groups of orange flowers are possibly gaillardias which were popular in France and named after maître Galliard de Charentonneau an eighteenth century magistrate who was also an enthusiastic botanist.  In the centre of the bed is a standard rose, while behind this plant a pair of large shrubs seem to echo the two white figures of the women.

Jeune femme a l’ombrelle dans une serre Maurice Bucquet 1907 – 1916

This elegantly dressed young woman carrying a blue umbrella is flanked by rows of brightly coloured flowers arranged on the staging of an impressive glasshouse.  Parasols and umbrellas were often used as props by autochrome photographers.  As well as showing the ability of the process to reproduce colours accurately, the large blocks of colour add strength and structure to the composition.

Jeune femme à ombrelle rouge assise dans un jardin (unknown photographer) 1907 – 1920

Seated on a garden chair, this stylish young woman is shaded both by a parasol and her wide brimmed hat.  The red parasol and matching outsize bow on her hat seem to infuse the whole picture with a pinkish glow.

Couple dans un jardin. Homme assis à une table, femme debout avec une ombrelle (unknown photographer) 1907 – 1930

As well as the smartly dressed couple, this photograph reveals some purpose made garden furniture.  The design, with its metal framework and slatted seats is typically French, as is the greyish-blue paintwork.  The man looks rather impatiently at the camera, as if he is longing for the moment he can break free of his pose.

30 août 1909 Jeune femme assise à sa table dans un jardin (unknown photographer)

This young woman is writing at a desk in the garden, against a backdrop of bamboo and an array of brightly coloured asters in the foreground.  In this period it was not unusual for families to bring furniture from their houses out into the garden for use on sunny days.  We know that this photograph was taken on 30th August 1909, but any information about the sitter, the location or the photographer has been lost.

Femme en robe blanche, dans un jardin, tenant des fleurs dans les mains (unknown photographer 1907 – 1931

Looking somewhat ghostly in her long, white dress, this woman holds two pink roses, apparently gathered from the group of standard rose bushes behind her.  Standard roses have a single strong stem, onto which two or more bush roses are attached, creating a mass of flowers, at eye level.  This very formal shape is sometimes called a tree rose, or rose tree, in the UK.  Today, in Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, avenues of standard roses are underplanted with pelargoniums in summer, in the popular style of this period.  The  jagged edges of the damage to the top of the photograph almost suggest mountains in the distance.

Couple en noir dans un jardin (unknown photographer) 1910 – 1920

This young couple standing in a sunny garden, are dressed in black, probably for a funeral.

Deux femmes et un homme près d’un massif fleurie Francois Verdier 1920 – 1930

In this compelling photograph, two women and a man are posed close to a flower border containing hollyhocks and roses.  The women’s focus is outside of the frame of the photograph, while the man, lying somewhat incongruously at the women’s feet, gazes straight at the camera.  The rustic looking wooden structure and young trees in the background suggest perhaps a newly planted garden, slightly at odds with the open skies and fields beyond.

Madame Rebillon a Montesson (Seine et Oise) Louis Rebillon 1907 – 1916

Louis Rebillon has created a strong blue theme in his photograph of Madame Rebillion, as she sits reading a journal in the garden.  Her blue satin shirt echoes both the blue irises at the top of the image and a string of cornflowers arranged around her straw hat.  The cornflower, or bluet de France is a symbol of solidarity with veterans, victims of war, widows and orphans, similar to the red poppy worn on Remembrance Day in the UK.  In France, bluet de France badges are sold twice a year, on 8th May and 11th November, with the proceeds used for charitable causes.

Femmes agées, mere et son jeune fils dans un jardin (unknown photographer) 1907 – 1920

Here some older women are sitting in the garden with a young boy,  who is unable to keep still for the time needed for the long exposure required for autochrome photographs.  Perhaps the ghostly figure behind the group is his mother attempting to direct his pose?  In the foreground is another fine example of a garden table, and in the background is a beautiful wall topped with tiled coping.

Mme Fouqué mère dans le jardin (unknown photographer) 1907 – 1931

Here, Mme Fouqué poses outside at an indoor table which has been paired with two purpose made outdoor chairs backed with a heart shaped motif.  The dressing of the table and the unoccupied chair with garden flowers adds to the charm of the scene.

Further reading:

Photography archive at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France here

Bluet de France here

Summer in a French Garden

Plant de géranium rouge                     Photographs by Eugène Blondelet courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Perhaps it’s in February, at the very end of the winter, that we look forward to the summer months with the most intensity?  These autochrome photographs, taken by Eugène Blondelet sometime between 1907 and 1920, provide a welcome reminder of warmer days ahead and capture perfectly the pleasures of long, sunny days outside in a French family garden.

The autochrome colour photography process was created by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in the early 1900s and they launched Autochrome Lumière in 1907, aimed at the amateur photographer.  Their process involved the use of prepared glass plates with tiny grains of dyed potato starch pressed onto one side and photosensitive silver halide emulsion on the other.  Autochrome was too expensive to make colour photography accessible to everyone, but proved popular with photographers who could afford it (like Blondelet), who frequently used the new technology to record their families and domestic surroundings, including gardens.

Autochrome Lumière required long exposures, so a tripod was needed to keep the heavy camera stable and people had to remain still while a photograph was being taken to avoid motion blur.  Clearly, the young boys in fancy dress (Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin)  photographed by Blondelet were unable to keep their poses quite long enough for the exposure time required – perhaps the double excitement of dressing up and having their photograph taken made this impossible – but the blurring caused by their movement somehow underlines their youthful energy and adds to the charm of the image.

Autochrome was best suited to objects with a fixed position and plants were ideal subjects for the photographer, being both static and colourful.  Images of bright floral arrangements were used by the Lumière Brothers as a means of marketing their process, as they were so effective in demonstrating its ability to replicate colour accurately.  Blondelet’s still life photographs of garden flowers reveal an abundance of roses, phlox, dahlias, geums, asters, coreopsis, gladiolus, and crocosmia – some of the popular flowers of the period.

The series of photographs entitled Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin give us a glimpse into how this example of a domestic garden was planted.  The borders behind the children are edged quite formally with three rows of low clipped box with a mass planting of orange French marigolds behind these, providing a continuous block of colour.  This effect would be further amplified later in the season by a row of nasturtiums which we can see beginning to climb up the balustrade.

Another (highly staged) image Garçonnets posant dans un jardin shows two boys in the role of gardeners, one with a small rake and the other pulling a wooden cart containing flowers supposedly gathered from the abundant and colourful border behind them.  Close up shots reveal a hydrangea, slightly wilted in the heat of the sun, some dahlias and a brilliant red pelargonium.

Blondelet’s interest in gardens seems to have extended beyond his own.  Massif de bégonias rouges et plant de bananier shows detail of a summer bedding display which looks typical of those planted in a public park.  Jardin d’une propriété en bordure d’un cours d’eau shows the traditional wooden gates, picket fencing and neat planting of a well cared for cottage garden, with steps down to a slow moving expanse of water.

What is the appeal of autochrome photographs today?  While their colour has intensity there’s also a slightly diffuse quality to the images, which must owe something to the materials used in the process, especially the granular nature of the potato starch.  While unmistakably grounded in the real world, at the same time these images seem to possess a sense of detachment from reality; a dream-like quality. Some of the imperfections and inevitable deterioration of the fragile plates over time contribute to this effect – the colour distortion in Blondelet’s Bouquet des roses from green at the top of the frame to red at the bottom is one such example.  But if the world depicted by black and white images can sometimes seem remote, these autochrome photographs connect us with the past with a striking immediacy.

Thanks to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for making these beautiful images available online.

Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin

Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin

Garçonnets déguisés dans un jardin

Garçonnets posant dans un jardin

Fleurs de diverses couleurs dans une cruche

Bouquet de roses

Bouquet de fleurs variées blanches

Bouquet composé de fleurs et de brins d’herbe

Fleurs fanées dans un vase

Massif de dahlias roses

Massif ensoleille d’hortensia bleu

Massif de bégonias rouges et plant de bananier

Jardin d’une propriété en bordure d’un cours d’eau

Plant de géranium rouge

Feuillage en contrejour

Autoportrait – Eugène Blondelet

Further reading:

Comprehensive explanation of Autochrome Lumière here

The Photographer in the Garden (2018) Jamie M Allen / Sarah Anne McNear
published by the George Eastman Museum / Aperture  – link here

Bibliothèque Nationale de France – online collections here

The story of Auguste and Louis Lumière here