Featured Acquisition: Autochrome portrait
of Percy MacKaye by Arnold Genthe
American playwright Percy MacKaye (1875-1956)
appears here as the poet Alwyn, “friend
of all,” in Sanctuary: A Bird Masque.
MacKaye was a proponent of communal civic
theater and a nature lover. He wrote this
masque as a public pageant for the dedication
of the Bird Club sanctuary in Meriden, New
Hampshire. The play, written in verse, told
of a hunter’s redemption by his prey,
the Bird Spirit. At a time when demand
for feathers in hats and other products was
harming entire species, the play helped promote
the wild bird conservation movement.
President Woodrow Wilson, who was summering
nearby, attended the first
performance on the evening of September 12,
1913. Under the patronage of First Lady Ellen
Wilson, the cast included members
of the Cornish Art Colony and other local participants.
The colorful pageant, staged in an improvised
outdoor amphitheater, featured rich
costumes, music, song, and dance. The performers
included the Wilson’s daughters, Eleanor,
in the leading role of Ornis (the
Bird Spirit) and Margaret, who sang the opening Hermit
Master photographer Arnold Genthe (1869-1942)
was well known in both literary and art circles.
In his autobiography, he recalled photographing
all the Sanctuary participants in
color at the rehearsal. His photographs illustrated
the published play in both color and black-and-white.
The Library’s Arnold
Genthe Collection has additional photographs
related to the play. [View
Genthe photos related to the Sanctuary]
information on the Genthe Collection]
The soft color effects of the autochrome appealed
to Genthe and other art photographers working
in the early 1900s. Louis Lumière (1864-1948)
invented and patented the autochrome in France
in 1904. In 1907, Louis and his brother
August (1862-1954) began to distribute autochrome
plates, and photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)
soon popularized the process in the United
States. Autochromes remained in active use
into the 1930s when new types of color film,
such as Kodachrome, replaced them.
process involved the adherence of red-orange,
green, and blue-violet potato starch grains
to a glass plate, which was then coated with
a light sensitive gelatin-bromide emulsion.
After exposure in a camera and development,
the plate became a one-of-a kind positive
image. People viewed an autochrome by holding
the plate up to a light source, projecting
the image onto a surface, or looking at a
mirror reflection in a special device called
a diascope. The MacKaye autochrome is 7 x
5 inches and has its original diascope viewer.
The Library’s 2007 purchase of this
arresting portrait of Percy MacKaye celebrates
the 100th anniversary of the
commercial availability of autochromes. A search
for autochromes by Arnold Genthe in the Prints & Photographs
Online Catalog displays many additional examples
of this first practical process for color photography.
more autochromes in the Genthe Collection]