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India in the autochromes of Jules Gervais-Courtellemont

Jules Gervais-Courtellemont (1863–1931) was a French photographer, famous for his colour autochromes taken during the First World War. He grew up in Algeria, where he developed a keen interest in photography and the ‘exotic’; his travel photographs from Turkey, Spain, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, China and India drew considerable public interest.

In 1894, Courtellemont first published the black-and-white photographs of his pilgrimage to Mecca in The Illustrated World (December issue). He became one of the early adopters of the colour photography when autochrome technology was introduced in 1907 by the Lumière brothers.

Autochromes were made by coating a glass plate with a sticky varnish and dusting it with a layer of colour dyed, translucent potato-starch grains. The plates were next coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. When the plate was inserted into a camera, the light from the lens passed through the dyed starch grains, which acted as color filters before reaching the emulsion. After exposure, the plate was processed to make a unique, full-color, positive silver image. Image : Woman weaves a carpet in Alegeria, 1909.

By 1911, Courtellemont had opened the Palais de Autochromie, at 167 Boulevard Montmartre (Paris). It housed an installation workshop, a laboratory, an exhibition hall and a 250-seat room where he would often host his popular ‘projected’ lectures. He later worked with the National Geographic which published many of his autochromes.

You can read a short history of the autochrome in this blog by the National Science & Media Museum, UK.

In these autochromes of India by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, you will notice the soft, muted colours that heighten the ‘exotic’ and ‘vintage’ vibe.

The powdery-vintage texture of autochromes are easily attainable through a range of filters and photo-effects available today, but back in the early 20th century, it was a rather cumbersome process.

In 2010, William C. Bonner, archivist at the National Geographic shared this note written by Jules Gervais (in 1927) with Stephen Crowley (staff photographer) at the New York Times :

Our worst enemy is wind….The field of autochrome work is very restrained in comparison to ordinary (black and white) photography. No snapshots and no necessity for many colors. Yet the design and the values of oppositions — contrasts — make much stronger photography. It is quite a different field as you know, one must search a great deal in order to find little.

Courtellemont in a letter to his editor at National Geographic in 1927

In India, similar to other traveling artists, Courtellemont explored places like Bombay, Madurai, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Jaipur, Agra, Gwalior and Benaras. In his pictures though, the focus is on the people. Take a look!

A group of fruit merchants present their food on a street in Bombay, 1926

Two merchants sit by their stand of honeycakes in Bombay, 1926

The Kite Merchant and his shop, Bombay, 1926

People surround one of Bombay’s bread merchants, 1926

A view of the streets of Jaipur, 1926

A state elephant owned by the Maharaja of Jaipur, 1926

1926, Maharaja Palace, Jaipur, India — A state elephant owned by the Maharaja of Jaipur — Image by © Gervais Courtellemont/National Geographic Society/Corbis

A man sits in front of the intricate facade of the women’s palace in Jaipur, 1926

A temple of the Jain sect at Ahmedabad with a painting of an elephant, 1926

A view of merchants selling garlands at the door of Brahman temple Gwalior, 1926

Two people stand in front of a schoolhouse in Gwalior. 1926

A group of people stand outside of a Brahman temple in Udaipur, 1926

Take a look at an alternative view of the temple by the German orientalist painter, John Gleich

On the banks of the Ganges, 1926

A fakir sits on the banks of the holy river Ganges in Benares (now Varanasi), India. The photo was published in National Geographic in 1926 as part of a report on India.

A view of the Taj Mahal on the Jumna River

Autochromes revolutionized photography and remained in vogue till about the 1930s when better technology took over. Many of these images are from the National Geographic collection which around 15000 autochromes in their archive.

Cortellemont’s works are in the collection of :

Cinémathèque Robert-Lynen, Paris (3,200 plates); Albert-Kahn Departmental Museum, Boulogne-Billancourt (84 plates): French Society of Photography (SFP), Paris; the National Geographic Museum, Washington DC, United States (2,291 plates).


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