29 July 2011

Charles Zoller: Autochromes From The House Of Kodak

Each spring  the gardens of the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York are bright with red and yellow  tulips, the colors of  Kodak, the company George Eastman (1854-1932) founded.  Eastman  invented roll film in 1885 and introduced the Kodak camera three years later. 

It seems that Rochester was destined to be the perfect city for amateur photographers.  Early in the 19th century he western New York city was known as the 'Flour City' for its grain mills and waterways but by the time Eastman came to town, the nickanme had morphed into 'Flower City'  for its numerous  commercial nurseries.   

 So successful was Eastman Kodak that as this advertising wagon in 1922 bragged that its hometown had become the Kodak City.  You'll notice that the photographs in display are in black and white.   Eastman Kodak  did not introduce its fabulously successful  Kodachrome color film until 1935.  George Eastman died in 1932, but the man who liked bold colors and bold ideas probably would have liked the song that Paul Simon wrote about his most successful product.

"When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It's a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn't hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's
a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don't take my Kodachrome away

If you took all the girls I knew
When I was single
And brought them all together
for one night
I know they'd never match
my sweet imagination
Everything looks worse
in black and white."
 - Kodachrome by Paul Simon, 1973, from There Goes Rhymin' Simon, Columbia Records.

But there's more to the development of color photography than American triumphalism.  There's the autochrome, introduced in 1907 by the Lumiere Brothers of France.  Although unstable and not easy to work with, it produced evocative color images that exist in relation to kodachrome as analog does to digital recording.   

American Pictorialist photographers, notably Edward Steichen who was born in Luxembourg and lived in France off and on, took up the new technique.  But professional photographers in the United States lost interest rapidly after their initial enthusiasm.   A  plausible explanation is that Alfred Stieglitz, in developing a rationale for photography as art,  made no place for color.  There is very little of it in his enormously influential journal Camera Work.

Enter Charles Zoller.   Zoller (1856-1934) was a successful furniture dealer from Rochester,  who happened to be in Paris in 1907, hust as the new process was unveiled.   Already interested in photography, he took up the autochrome immediately and may have been the first American amateur to use it.

Over the ensuing decades,  Zoller documented life in the Flower City with autochrome while his contemporaries stuck with black and white.  Once dubbed America's first boomtoom, Rochester is a city with neighborhoods full of gracious houses in a potpourri of styles surrounded by the upstate wine country of the Finger Lakes.  There was no shortage of appealing subjects for Zoller to turn his camera to.

The man who often rode around Rochester on his high-wheel bicycle had a sense of fun.  There are pictures by Zoller that make me smile, even as I wish he had left some written explanation for what was going on.  Whose horse was watching those cultivated roses?  Whose birthday was the occasion for a giant outdoor cake delivered by a dancing fairy godmother? 

And what enterprising farmer/gardener devoted a large field to  this floral American flag?  I want to know what kind of fruit was on those trees - apples, cherries, plums, peaches?

Although one town (Aurora)  in the Finger Lakes tried  advertising itself as "the Miami of the north",  the upstate region could just as well be dubbed 'East Alaska' for the unpredictability and harshness of its winters. 

 In pursuit of his avocation., Zoller toured the country several times,   down the coast to Florida and then  across the southwest to California.  He  met - and photographed -  actor Charlie Chaplin in 1918. 

Around Hollywood and Los Angeles Zoller photographed garden court houses and imitations of Japanese architecture, as well as new flora like the rows of giant cone-shaped Honey Plant lining a street in Beverly Hills.

When Zoller began visits to Florida around 1920, it was just about to become a popular vacation spot.  With the smallest population of any southern state and cheap real estate, you could buy fresh oranges directly from farmers at their roadside stands and there was no one to stop you from driving your car onto the beach.
 It's difficult now to retrieve the wonder that Zoller's friends and acquaintances probably felt when they looked at his albums.  We're jaded now, with our disposable cameras and fingertip media, we take the power and beauty of images for granted.

Zoller photographed this Arizona rock formation in 1909.  I think it was the eye hole, the aperture if you will, that attracted him.  To see, to document, to share was his avocation.  From grains of starch, lampblack and silver emulsion these images were fixed, except that sometimes, like the snows of upstate New York, they drift.

George Eastman House  presented the exhibition Rochester In Color: The Autochromes of Charles Zoller in 1988.

Images: Approximately 4,000 autochromes by Charles Zoller  are in the collection of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, NY
The majority are  dated c.1907-1932, the years during which Zoller photographed..


Rouchswalwe said...

"We're jaded now, with our disposable cameras and fingertip media, we take the power and beauty of images for granted." You've hit the nail on the head, sweet Jane. I am awed by that parakeet picture.

Jane said...

R, I've looked at hundreds of Zoller's pictures but there thousands! I tried to choose representative samples of his subject matter. Zoller lovingly documented the individual entries to the annual Flower City flower show, for instance. He is certainly the equal of many better-known photographers.