The first ethno-photographs published in colour

May 2018

 

Though the history of colour photography dates back more than a hundred years, the production and publication of colour enlargements (photopositives) has only been widespread since the 1940s, when colour film first entered mass use.  Until that time, printed media – including books, magazines, and newspapers – were all dominated by black-and-white photography.  

Always leading the charge in the use of the latest photographic methods, ethnographers, too, were quick to explore the new colour medium and make it their own.  The first colour process available to amateurs arrived in 1907 in the form of “autochrome glass plates,” an invention of the Lumière brothers:  “An autochrome plate is essentially a positive, colour photographic slide, consisting of an image recorded on a medium held between two glass plates that is viewable either with the naked eye, or via projection.  The plates are made by coating a sheet of glass with a mixture containing coloured grains of starch, adding a layer of conventional (black-and-white) photosensitive material, then covering the whole thing with a second glass sheet.”
 
In 1911, several years after autochrome hit the market, Museum of Ethnography researcher István Györffy was already using the medium – in addition to conventional black-and-white photography – in his fieldwork in the Fekete-Körös Valley, where it was particularly useful in documenting colourful folk costumes.

Romanian men in laced slippers and felt outerwear, Romanian woman in a leather waistcoat Tatárfalva, Romania. Taken by István Györffy, 1911, colour, autochrome plate, 13x18 cm.  Museum of Ethnography, D 4982
Romanian men in laced slippers and felt outerwear, Romanian woman in a leather waistcoat Tatárfalva, Romania. Taken by István Györffy, 1911, colour, autochrome plate, 13x18 cm. Museum of Ethnography, D 4982

Unfortunately, autochrome images –  photo-historians will point out – were virtually impossible to reproduce.  The only material available for the purpose was a product known as “Uto paper,” but the quality this produced was low at best and the process complicated and time-consuming.  It is no coincidence, therefore, that serially reproduced colour photographs did not appear in publication until as late as the second half of the 1930s, before which colour illustrations in ethnographic publications consisted largely of hand-coloured photographs or original artwork.  Györffy himself, for example, for lack of a means of copying his autochrome images, illustrated his studies of the clothing of the Fekete-Körös Valley with manually coloured photographs.

Woman from Köröstárkány in folk costume,1912. Enlarged colour rendering of a photograph by István Györffy, tempera, 49x20 cm. Museum of Ethnography, R 10586
Woman from Köröstárkány in folk costume,1912. Enlarged colour rendering of a photograph by István Györffy, tempera, 49x20 cm. Museum of Ethnography, R 10586

The first comprehensive, high-quality publication on Hungarian folk art was issued in 1928 on the occasion of the Prague Folk Art Congress.  Authored by Museum of Ethnography employees Zsigmond Bátky, István Györffy, and Károly Viski, the volume featured a large number of high-quality illustrations, which the State Publishing House hoped would reflect well on the contemporary Hungarian graphics industry.  In addition to its large number of black-and-white and colour sketches, the volume also included a number of colour photographs and photographic arrays, including images of colourful traditional felt overcoats, all pasted in separately.

Though not of lower quality than other illustrations in the volume, these would hardly meet the standards applied to published photographic images today.  Visible on many of them is the name of the shop responsible for their reproduction, “Weinwurm és társa, VI. Ó utca [Weinwurm and Co., District 6, Ó Street],” the establishment of Antal Weinwurm and his brother Ferenc.  The means used was likely photogravure, a technique typical of the age.  One of the largest photographic reproduction labs of its time, Weinwurm and Co. had produced the illustrations for innumerable books, and its proprietors were both intimately acquainted with, and highly skilled at applying various photographic processes.  This is further evinced by a 1929 article of their authorship entitled Regarding Co-Operation Between Photography and the Printing Industry, though interestingly, the piece does not cover the subjects of autochrome or colour photography.  The most intriguing question, therefore, regards precisely what type of colour photographs were used as the basis for the illustrations in the book; and the answer seems almost certainly to be that they were autochrome images taken at the Museum of Ethnography.  The primary evidence for this is that the original autochrome plate of the felt overcoats currently resides in the museum’s Photographic Slides Collection.  The garments in question, modelled by two male figures, are from Szentgál and Eger (in Veszprém and Heves Counties, respectively), and are now found in the museum’s Textiles and Folk Costumes Collection.  Additionally, the staged image appears to have been taken during the 1920s, either in the front garden of the museum’s building on Könyves Kálmán körút (today, Hungária körút), or – perhaps more probably – across from the building in the park known as Népliget.  The image is not the only artefact photograph in the Photographic Slides Collection produced for such a purpose.  Sándor Gönyey, for example, took numerous autochrome photographs in various areas of the country, many of them on the subject of folk costumes, during this same period.

Men in the felt overcoats of Eger and Szentgál (staged image). Budapest, mid-to-late 1920s. Museum of Ethnography, NM F 325011
Men in the felt overcoats of Eger and Szentgál (staged image). Budapest, mid-to-late 1920s. Museum of Ethnography, NM F 325011

Among their objectives in publishing the work, the authors made specific reference to the matter of photographic content:  “To date, no book that adequately presents the entirety of Hungarian folk art via multiple series of characteristic images has ever been published.  ....  We held that the best method for presenting this material was to provide as many images as the (rather limited) framework would permit, while restricting the text to what is necessary for imparting an understanding of the past and present folk art of our people and of the work conducted in its study.”

Playing a key role both in the publication of the work, and the design of its illustrations was University Press director Elemér Czakó, who, probably in the interest of raising graphic quality and supported by a generous state budget, took advantage of every colour illustrational technique available at the time.   Notably, no later publications containing reproduced colour (autochrome) photographs are known to exist, even among the ethnographic literature, with the single exception of A Taste for Hungarian Style:  A Survey of Forms from Hungarian Cottage Industry and Folk and Applied Art (1930), also published by Czakó, some of the illustrations for which were selected from among the those – including the autochrome images – used in Hungarian Folk Art.

Péter Granasztói