Early Color

Editorial Staff Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April 2012 |


Color, rather than composition, subject matter, or form, is the true life force of photography. Color is the fluid essence of the quotidian, of life as it is lived in its ceaseless flux and reflux. That is the conclusion to be drawn from the early twentieth-century autochromes of Heinrich Kühn, who is the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York (April 26 to August 27). One of the earliest forms of color photography, and the first that could be created easily and cheaply, autochromes were produced by coating a glass plate with minute colored grains of starch under a silver halide emulsion, resulting in images so fragile that they tend to be displayed publicly only in reproduction. They neither sought nor achieved the needle-sharp clarity in black and white that one finds in daguerreotypes or in other, slightly later examples of Victorian photography, a clarity that, to this day, has never been surpassed. But as dazzling as many of those daguerreotypes are, black-and-white photography by its very nature has always seemed crucially alien to human experience, which after all is experienced in living color.


Edeltrude and Lotte by Kühn, 1912-1913.

Autochrome, 7 1/8 by 5 1/8 inches.

(c) Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, bildarchiv


Though Heinrich Kühn remains largely unknown in this country, he was one of the most committed advocates of photography as an art, rather than as the mechanical and commercial process that most of his contemporaries took it to be. In his quest to establish photography on an equal footing with any of the other fine arts, he found powerful allies in two Americans photographers, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, whose connection with Kühn is the focus of the Neue Galerie’s exhibition.


  • Hikers in Front of a Could by Kuhn, 1912-1913. Gum bichromate print over Japanese paper, 8 by 11 1/8 inches. Private collection.

  • Mary Warner and Edeltrude on the Brow of a Hill by Kuhn, c. 1910. Autochrome, 9 3/8 by 7 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection (c) Estate of Heinrich Kuhn, courtesy of Galerie Kicken Berlin; photograph (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

  • Nude (Mary Warner) by Kuhn, c. 1907. Platinum print, 11 3/4 by 9 3/8 inches. Private collection.

  • Edeltrude and Lotte by Kuhn, 1912-1913. Autochrome, 7 1/8 by 5 1/8 inches. (c)Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv.


Kühn’s biography is fairly straightforward. He led the comfortable and largely uneventful life of a member in good standing of the haute bourgeoisie in Dresden, where his father owned a prosperous wholesale business. Home-schooled until his teens, Kühn went on to study medicine in Innsbruck, Austria, but he never completed his degree. For the next few years he pursued his loves of photography and mountaineering, in which interests he was sustained by a generous allowance from his parents. Most of the images that resulted from his excursions, like his scene of chalets beneath a snow-capped Matterhorn from 1890, are thoroughly competent and unremarkable.


With his father’s death in 1893, Kühn finally achieved financial independence and was able to devote himself completely to photography. One year later he married Emma Rosa Katzung, with whom he had four children. Evidently a proud parent, he featured them over and over again in some of his best work, of which a representative example is his 1913 autochrome The Four Kühn Children (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna). In its unassuming way, this is one of the most complex and baroque compositions ever attempted in a photograph: arrayed in a rough circle, the children are seen from the chest up against a green backdrop, each of them wearing a jacket of a different color, as Kühn explores and exploits the possibilities of the new medium of autochromes.


A year before Emma died in 1905, an English woman named Mary Hannah Warner entered the household as a governess. Although it is not clear whether she and Kühn had a romantic relationship after the death of his wife, there is a very real likelihood of that, given the number of nude photographs he took of her. In one black-and-white image from 1906 that was perhaps inspired by a well-known Edward Burne-Jones engraving, the young woman’s pale sinuous body is sharply defined against a darkened ground, as she covers herself with her arms like a modern Venus Pudica. Whatever the nature of her relationship with Kühn, Miss Warner remained with the family until her death in 1933.


In the last three decades of his life, Kühn continued to develop his photographic skills, writing and taking photographs with a view to enhancing the prestige of the medium and developing its technical scope. Throughout this time he continued to take frequent trips to the Alps, Venice, the Italian lakes, and the Dalmatian coast, all of which resulted in a wealth of photographic records of the natural and cultural wonders he encountered. He died at age seventy-eight in 1944.


The general public of 1900 attributed the highest cultural prestige to painting and sculpture, but they were not prepared to think of photography in the same terms. Despite displays of artistic photography at the Vienna Secession of 1903, where Kühn showed some of his works, most of the serious artistic photographers of the day responded to the public’s indifference by forming clubs like the Linked Ring in Britain and the Camera Club in New York and, in Vienna, Das Kleeblatt, or Trifolium, which Kühn formed with two other gifted photographers, Hugo Henneberg and Hans Watzek, in 1897.


   Perhaps a more important development, however, than the founding of the Kleeblatt was Kühn’s meeting Stieglitz and Steichen in the early 1900s. Both men visited him several times in the Tyrol, and they went on a number of photo-shooting excursions together. In the entire history of the medium, no man labored with greater or more single-minded success than Stieglitz to win a hearing for photography as a respected art form. He did this not only through his own magnificent photographs, but also through his journal Camera Work, founded in 1902, and the 291 gallery (located at 291 Fifth Avenue) that mounted the first American exhibitions of Picasso and Matisse as well as exhibitions of American and European photographers, among them Kühn.


Kühn’s encounter with the two American masters (both of them born, significantly, to European parents) strengthened that sense of self-conscious artistry that was already present in some of his earliest photographs. Like so many of the artistically inclined photographers of the turn of the century, Kühn believed-as did Stieglitz and Steichen at this time-that the prestige of the medium was enhanced by abandoning its unsurpassed ability to register reality and by imitating the form and spirit of painting. In practice, this meant invoking the forms and mood of art nouveau, symbolism, and the various later stages of impressionism.


Perhaps because of the essentially artificial nature of black-and-white photography, Kühn’s work in this medium, compared with his autochromes, tends to be more aggressively formalist, emphasizing abstract forms inspired by the more advanced artistic doctrines of the day. Accordingly, these works are often highly aestheticized portraits of visual artists, like Stieglitz and Steichen, as well as still lifes, darkened interiors, and twilit landscapes obviously inspired by contemporary painting.


It is tempting to imagine that the change that occurred in Kühn’s work after he met Stieglitz and Steichen was a direct consequence of that meeting. Consider one of Kühn’s earlier photographs, which shows the Siegestor in Munich, from 1898 or 1899:  it depicts a horse-drawn carriage passing under one of the arches of the famous Bavarian monument, with the sun setting behind it. There is a formal balance between a row of trees on the right and the arch and a single tree on the left. Through various darkroom techniques, the image is slightly blurred so that it almost looks painted. This artifice, combined with its sturdy composition and sullen mood, brings to mind contemporary landscape painters like Jacob Maris of the Hague School.

After he encountered the two Americans, however, Kühn’s work became far more emphatically modern in spirit, as is evident not only in his later cityscapes, but also, appropriately, in his portrait of Stieglitz from 1904. In it, the American photographer, seated and dandified in a dark suit and bow tie, appears as a fastidious mass of sharp angles and sharper elbows; he fixes his gaze on the viewer with the intensity that was the hallmark of the man.


One of Kühn’s most accomplished works in black and white is a Cezanne-inspired still life from about 1908 that depicts three limes on a white footed bowl, flanked by two glasses and a carafe. Far paler than the Stieglitz and Steichen portraits, this image artfully contrasts the rough dark rind of the fruit with the smoothness and brightness of the bowl and the glass. This work feels more modern and sincere, if one may put it so, than most of Kühn’s earlier works in black and white. It belongs to the twentieth century, rather than to the nineteenth.


The one quality that unites Kühn’s photographs from before and after his meeting with the Americans was his attempts to import the aesthetics of painting into photography. More recent taste in photography has tended to disavow his depictions of Stieglitz and of the Siegestor as much on ethical as on artistic grounds. Many people who admire symbolist art feel a little uneasy about photographs that try so hard to reject what they are, photographs, in favor of what they are not, paintings. A certain fussiness, even a hint of fakery, marks many of the works in this style. But if it is self-evident to us that photography does not need to resemble a painting to be taken seriously as fine art, that fact was far less evident in 1900. It should also be said that some of these painterly photographs, among them Kühn’s portrait of Stieglitz, not to mention Steichen’s Monet-like views of the Flatiron Building, are very fine indeed.


But if many of Kühn’s black-and-white photographs are beautiful creations, his best work, I believe, as well as his most striking and original, is his autochromes. They are as scrupulously posed as his works in black and white; but perhaps as a function of their color, they appear less so. Or maybe it would be truer to say that if both bodies of work take their inspiration from paintings, his dark and morbid images in black and white look to the symbolists, while his autochromes, which often depict his family, look back to the impressionists in all their life-affirming energy. His red-cheeked image of his daughter Lotte, from 1906, could have been painted by Renoir, while his dashing image of Mary Warner on a hillside (Mary am Hang), from a year later, recalls several iconic paintings by Monet.


Because of the technological constraints of the autochrome, the resulting images tend to lack the crispness of detail that  black-and-white photographs of the day were often able to achieve. This is certainly the case with Kühn. The scenes of his children Hans, Lotte, Walther, and Edeltrude, with their mother or Miss Warner, appear to be in no way abstracted. It is only when you step back from them that you appreciate how little detail you can grasp in what is really a universalized image of a happy family. And though this is not the place to assess whether that happiness was real-and there is no compelling reason to doubt it-let it be said that the happiness of Kühn’s autochromes feels less like the canned gladness of a Kodak moment than like that measured joy of the impressionists, with their abiding attachment to all the endearing rituals of domestic life.


Though Kühn captured some very charming and affecting domestic scenes in black and white, it was the introduction of the autochrome and the blessings of color that brought this part of his oeuvre to its highest perfection. And whereas the black-and-white photographs look to be, as they are, from early in the last century, his autochromes (notwithstanding some shifts in wardrobe) seem to belong essentially to the present-not a specific present, but that supreme presentness that, at any time and in any place, is always essentially the same. This quality is abundantly evident in a comparison of two photographs from about 1912, both titled Wanderer auf der Wiese (Hikers in the Meadow), one in black and white, the other in color (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). While the former seems to reach us from another age, almost another world, the latter (but for the bonnets and long skirts) could have been shot on any peerless spring day in the German countryside or even in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.


The higher aesthetic ambition of this latter work is the joyous exploitation of color for its own sake, manifested in the billowing green grass that overruns the composition. Nothing like this exploitation of color was even imaginable in earlier black-and-white photography. A similar immersion in a single color distinguishes an autochrome of 1908 titledVeilchen (Albertina, Vienna). This radically original image, perhaps Kühn’s masterpiece, consists of nothing more than the flowers in extreme close-up and flecked with dew drops against an earth-tone backdrop. It represents nothing less than the quiddity of purple. The flowers themselves, as a function of their color, live on in a way that would be beyond the competence of black-and-white photography.    


It is that exquisite use of color, I believe, that ultimately endows Kühn’s autochromes with a sense of deep timelessness that transcends mere contemporaneity, even as their realness saves them from the flaccid abstraction of so much artistic photography from the fin du siècle. Kühn’s autochromes stake out a middle ground between the positivistic register of observable data that photography traditionally sought to provide and the painterly indeterminacy that his contemporaries found more appealing than we do today. In his autochromes reality flows like an epiphany through the objects of the world, through its landscapes and through the people who inhabit them. These images exist in an eternal present tense, as though the scenes and objects they depicted were floating and yet more fixed, in their very fluidity, than the reality through which we habitually move in the very act of being alive.