Potato-based photographs of the Progressive Era

Earlier this week I dropped in to see The Artist’s Garden at PAFA, an exhibit I’ve been excited to see since I worked on the exhibit catalog for my previous job in book marketing. The exhibit showcases American Impressionist art from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period that also saw a marked upswing in both city parks and home gardening. The paintings and drawings depict gardens, flowers, and architecture in the expressive brushstrokes and vivid colors for which Impressionism is known. It’s a gorgeous collection and on view through May 24, so if spring is not coming fast enough for you, consider immersing yourself in those lovely landscapes.

Of particular interest to me were the delicate autochromes of gardens and still lifes with flowers. Prior to working on the book for this exhibit, I had no idea that color photography existed as early as 1903.  These turn-of-the-century autochromes were created with grains of potato starch dyed red, blue, and green, placed on a glass, and given long exposure to filtered light.  The resulting images had a dreamy, impressionistic quality, with rich colors and hazy lighting. But the resulting photographs are extremely delicate and will gradually deteriorate from exposure to light. That explains why they aren’t frequently seen or exhibited: to put an autochrome on display for public viewing would ultimately cause it to disappear.

The images I saw at PAFA were digital reproductions, lit from behind as they would be if you were viewing the original through a diascope (like a magic lantern). Taken by an amateur photographer, Thomas Shields Clarke, the images of his home and garden seem to be suffused with a surreal golden glow, like old Dutch portraiture come to  life. You can read about the discovery of Clarke’s autochromes at Penn Press Log, and view a number of them on PAFA’s site–including this exotic lady, relaxing in an orchard.

Thomas Shields Clarke, Fernbrook, ca. 1910, Photographic autochrome, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Archives, Photo by Barbara Katus / Brian van Camerik


The early days of photography must have seemed like alchemy or mad science; the oldest photographs still in existence were magicked from silvers and salts and more dubious chemical mixes like petroleum and mercury. Potato starch seems like an odd catalyst to capture and fix color, but as French site La Photographie des Couleurs explains, the method emerged out of trial and error. Starch was an ideal agent because it could be very finely granulated but would still soak up the dye. The inventive Lumière brothers tried about 38 different kinds of starch:

This list included common cereals such as oats, wheat, rye and barley, as well as some other, more rare materials like yam (a tropical plant providing a starchy tuber, different from the sweet potato, which often goes by the same name) or tacca oceanica (a species of tropical herb with an edible tuber). In the end however, the Lumière brothers decided on potato starch. The size of the starch particles contained in the potato could vary between 5 and 100 microns, which was not favourable for the application they envisioned, but this disadvantage was greatly compensated for by the good dying properties. These properties of potato starch allowed for the constitution of a sufficiently selective screen, capable of responding to the spectral specifications of the trichromatic selection.

Potato starch: good for thickening, binding, glueing, and capturing the ethereal light in a flowering garden on certain early twentieth century spring afternoons.

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