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Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud

Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud, French photographer, was born near Lyon in 1866. The son of a shoemaker, he joined the army after completion of his military service in 1887.
Tournassoud‘s interest in photography developed early on. In 1900, he met and became friends with the Lumičre Brothers and was one of the first photographers to experiment with the color Autochrome process they invented.
From the early 1900s to his death in 1951, Tournassoud took several thousand photographs - in black and white and in color - ranging from scenes of military life before and including the First World War, to portraits of family and friends, family life, landscapes and still lifes.
The Autochrome
During the 19th century, many experiments with color photography were conducted but proved too complicated to gain sufficient users to be commercially viable. Some of these experiments did, however, serve as the theoretical framework for the process developed by the Lumičre Brothers for their "Autochrome plate", which was the first commercially successful process for color photography, launched in 1907.
Alfred Stieglitz in a letter from Munich dated July 1907 wrote: "All are amazed at the remarkably truthful color rendering; the wonderful luminosity of the shadows…, the endless range of grays; the richness of the deep colors. In short, soon the world will be color-mad, and Lumičre will be responsible.".
In an article published in the October, 1907 issue of ‘Camera Work‘, Stieglitz wrote again: "Color photography is an accomplished fact. The seemingly everlasting question whether color would ever be within the reach of the photographer has been definitely answered. The answer the Lumičres, of France, have supplied. For fourteen years, it is related, they have been seeking it. Thanks to their science, perseverance, and patience, practical application and unlimited means, these men have finally achieved what many of us had looked upon practically as unachievable….".
The Autochrome plate of the Lumičre Brothers is a direct positive, on a glass plate, of variable size; there is no negative so each image is a unique non reproducible (in a direct manner) photograph, precursor of color slide. The Autochrome plate was made of a three-color screen made up of millions of grains of potato starch dyed in the three complimentary colors (orange, violet and green). This mixture was then laid out on a varnished glass plate, which would be ready for use once it was coated with a black and white silver emulsion.
Tournassoud, autochromist
Tournassoud having spent so much of his life in the military, and having been in charge of the Photographic and Cinematographic Section of the French Army during the First World War, is today mostly known as a military photographer, with many of his Autochromes dedicated to military scenes and scenes of destruction brought by the war in Northern France. His first post-war exhibit in 1919 was a spectacular showing of 750 black and white prints picturing the dramatic impact and consequences of the war on people, countryside, villages and cities.
However, Tournassoud was also a great humanist able to relate to people, their plights, their inner world, and thus he developed a keen sense of the dramatic, the humorous and the everyday. With the eye of a painter and an excellent knowledge of the rules of composition, he produced Autochromes, ranging from landscapes and still lifes, portraits of the famous as well as friends and family through to scenes of village life.
Most of his Autochromes are constructed similar to a painting with the subjects "posing" for the photographer. This was necessitated because the exposure for an Autochrome could vary from several seconds to several minutes depending on the intensity of the light as well as the luminosity of the subject…. However, Tournassoud was able to introduce in the formalism of the pose and in the composition elements of poetry, humor and sensitivity.
Some of the Autochromes in this presentation are clearly reminiscent of Impressionism though Tournassoud’s aesthetic sensibility and technical virtuoso was able to blend both the inherit qualities of the photographically derived Autochrome with true painterly sensitivity and emotions.
© January 2006, Nadia Valla



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