This Place in History: The Lumière Brothers and Autochrome Photography

Vermont Historical Society


At ‘This Place in History‘ we’re in Burlington on Flynn Ave. with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“This building [formerly Vermont Hardware] represents international technological development, color photography and cinema. Hugo Martínez Cazón, a local historian, is going to join us to tell us all about what went on here,” introduced Perkins.

“This is the Lumière’s North American building. It was built in 1901. This was built by the Lumière family, the early developers of black and white photography. They invented cinema and also color photography and produced x-rays here in this factory,” explained Martínez Cazón.

“[Burlington] was a little town of 18,000 people at the beginning of the 20th Century. It had a very lively industry making color dyes for wool and cotton and had a big French-speaking population. The Lumière brothers from France were looking for a place where they could make film and not have to import it and pay the importation taxes.”

“So, they decided on Burlington. Typically, people think of color photography starting in the 1940s with Kodak and this is 35 years before that. It’s high-quality, direct color photography. What some people are used to seeing is a really good black and white photograph that’s been painted on; but, this is not that. This is a photograph that you took the film and you got a color picture,” said Martínez Cazón

“[The process] was called autochrome and it was made out of little pellets of potato starch that were each dyed into different colors. Then, when you were developing it, the colors were directly pixelated, like computers do today to create a color, where you really couldn’t see those pixels. It looked really natural.”

“It blew everybody away. You could be in London and see a photo of a Bengal tiger in real colors and that was unheard of. Nobody was prepared for that,” explained Martínez Cazón.

“It was a wonder. This [factory] was outside of the city at the time. This was called Howard Park. It was so important when they bought this land that it became the Lumière Park.”

“They were in business here from when they built the building in 1902 until 1910. At that point, the decision was made to move all the production back to Lyon, France. Then, World War I started and that complicated things further.”

“One point I should make is that this is the only Lumière building [left today] in the world. The Lumière factory in Lyon was huge and there’s an annual festival every year in Lyon. But, they knocked down all of their buildings. So, they have a big commitment to the cultural value of this, but they don’t have any of the factory buildings. And when I was there last year, they said Burlington has the only building, so it’s really important,” concluded Martínez Cazón.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

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