The First World War in (real) Colour

identifier: BATTLE OF MARNE 2014071


“Le portfolio-photo-couleurs” Les Champs de Bataille de la Marne. Photographies directes en-couleurs (Fac-similes sans retouches de plaques autochromes). Text et illustrations de Gervais-Courtellement. L’edition Française illustrée. 30 rue de Provence, Paris. 1915 edition [originally published in parts, in 1914-15]. Half-leather binding. 196 pages.


This is a scarce and historic, large (320 x 240mm) book of colour photographs taken during and shortly after the Battle of the Marne. These images were projected by magic lantern, at the “Palais de l’autochromie” in Paris. Tomorrow it will be 100 years to the day that the battle ended.

My generation grew up immersed in documentary images of both World Wars, in black-and-white. I remember being amazed by the colour footage of WW2 that gradually emerged during the ‘80s in particular. I wrote a review of Victory in Europe by Max Hastings (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1985) for the British Journal of Photography. It’s a book filled with haunting images – frame enlargements from Kodachrome footage shot by American director George Stevens as his troupe moved through France and into Germany. Later, television programmes such as The Second World War in Colour (1999) made such material much better known, though the visual veracity was later diluted with World War II in Colour (2008/9), which included much colourised footage. These programmes were followed by the inevitable World War 1 in Colour, with exclusively colourised scenes. Genuine colour stills of the First World War have featured in many books in recent years, including Taschen’s recent The First World War in Colour by Peter Walther, which includes autochromes by Jules Gervais-Courtellemont. Inevitably, as time goes by these genuine colour images will be subsumed into the plethora of colourised pictures of WW1 that have been created recently, the special qualities of these poignant autochromes lost to most who see them.


The Battle of the Marne (French: Première bataille de la Marne) (also known as the Miracle of the Marne) was a First World War battle fought from 5–12 September 1914. It resulted in an Allied victory against the German Army under Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. The battle was the culmination of the German advance into France and pursuit of the Allied armies which followed the Battle of the Frontiers in August, which had reached the eastern outskirts of Paris. The counterattack of six French field armies and the British Expeditionary Force (‘BEF’) along the Marne River forced the German Imperial Army to abandon its push on Paris and retreat north-east, leading to the ‘Race to the Sea’ and setting the stage for four years of trench warfare on the Western Front. The battle was an immense strategic victory for the Allies, wrecking Germany’s bid to ‘unhinge’ the Verdun-Marne-Paris line in their first campaign of the war and forcing them to breach it directly in their next campaign against France.


The Autochrome is an early additive colour photography process patented in 1903 by the Lumière brothers in France. First marketed in 1907, it was the principal colour photography process in use before the advent of subtractive color film in the mid-1930s. A glass plate is coated with a random mosaic of microscopic grains of potato starch dyed red-orange, green, and blue-violet, which act as colour filters. Lampblack fills the spaces between grains, and a black-and-white panchromatic silver halide emulsion is coated on top of the filter layer. The use of an additional orange-yellow filter in the camera was required to block ultraviolet light and restrain the effects of violet and blue light, parts of the spectrum to which the emulsion was overly sensitive. The plate was first developed into a negative image but not “fixed”. The silver forming the negative image was chemically removed, and the remaining silver halide exposed to light and developed, producing a positive image. When viewed by transmitted light, each bit of the silver image acted as a micro-filter, allowing more or less light to pass through the corresponding colored starch grain, recreating the original proportions of the three colors. At normal viewing distances, the light coming through the individual grains blended together in the eye, reconstructing the colour of the light photographed through the filter grains. The plates were viewed by projection, or on a light box. The mosaic of glowing dots on glass gives autochromes the look of pointillist paintings. [adapted from Wikipedia and other online sources.] In recent years, there has been a revival of interest. Groups in France, working with the original Lumière machinery and notes, and a few individuals in the United States, are attempting to recreate the process. Very few complete successes have resulted. Recently, the process was recreated by the photographer Frédéric Mocellin.


Jules Gervais-Courtellemont (1863–1931) was a French photographer, famous for taking autochromes during World War I. He was born in the province of Seine-et-Marne, near Paris, but grew up in Algeria, where he developed a passion for the pre-colonial Orient and devoted most of his professional career in search of the exotic. In 1894 converted to Islam prior to making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Images collected in Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, Spain, India, Morocco and China formed the basis for his popular illustrated lectures, which he illustrated with lantern slides. With the outbreak of World War I, Courtellemont returned to his home province to record the war. In 1911, Courtellemont had opened the “Palais de l’autochromie” in Paris – an exhibition hall, studio, laboratory, and lecture hall with a seating capacity of 250. Courtellemont would project his autochromes both of the Orient and, after 1914, of the war, particularly the Marne battlefields. These lectures proved to be so popular that Courtellemont issued a twelve-part series later bound in book form called The Battle of Marne and later a four-part series entitled The Battle of Verdun. These are the first books about war ever published in colour. Courtellemont’s work displays a tight sense of composition, an acute awareness of the interplay of light on color, and a haunting familiarity of symbolism. Landscapes are carefully composed, with due attention to lighting and placement within the picture frame. He used symbols such as the lonely cross and the charred tree for dramatic effect. [adapted from Wikipedia]. The most noteworthy book about his work is by B. De Pastre and E. Devos (eds.), Les couleurs du voyage: L’oeuvre photographique de Jules Gervais-Courtellemont (published in 2002).


To quote from Wikipedia: ‘Vintage reproductions of Autochromes in old books and magazines have often been noticeably hand-adjusted by the photoengravers in an effort to compensate for some of the difficulties of reproduction, and as a result they sometimes look more like hand-colored photographs than “natural color” ones.’ – so it’s interesting that the publishers of Les Champs de Bataille de la Marne state “fac-similes sans retouches”.


All pictures in the book are in colour. There are illustrations on every double-page spread – and all but a few (maps) are autochromes of the Marne area, soldiers, and war damage. I do not scan books where this might damage the binding, so I have photographed the pages, and have made every effort to present the illustrations here as they appear on the page, without enhancement. Click on an image to see it enlarged. Odd numbers of the original twelve separate parts can be found in dealers’ lists and French bookshops, but the bound volume is scarce. This historic volume, printed almost a century ago while the battles of WW1 were still raging, would be a very attractive addition to any collection relating to colour photography, colour printing, French history / topography, or military history.



Condition: Better than good. All pages in a good state, with very few marks, a small closed tear to one page only. Small mark on title page. Binding becoming visible at the gutter, in two places that I could see. Some stains and minor marks and wear to the cover, including slightly bumped corners, wear to top and bottom of spine covering. Empathic repair to leather at bottom right corner of front cover. Small nick to one side of the inset cover photo. Now in protective Mylar sleeve.

Price: £95.00 plus postage

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