FERNAND BOURGES Does Justice to Color
Skill with a camera, an artist's eye for color matching, and a photoengraver's experience help this expert make his brilliant reproductions.
OF all branches of color photography, the true reproduction of famous paintings in full color is one of the most exacting and difficult. To be worth the paper it is printed on, a reproduction must be faithful to the original in every detail. A false tone is like a sour note in the recording of a great symphony, and is just as hard to tolerate.
Nobody can imitate nature precisely. The painter and the photographer alike try largely to produce pictures which are convincing, knowing that to reproduce the tints and the values seen in nature is next to impossible.
But the man who must reproduce a painting must duplicate the original as closely as possible, where the artist may have put his work across by means of a clever scheme or design. There is no latitude in a color reproduction, and like all imitations it is bound to be compared with the original.
This is a severe test, and there are few photographers who are competent to meet it. One of the few is Fernand Bourges who, for thirty years, has been consistently turning out color reproductions of outstanding merit. Famous paintings in the Metropolitan Museum, in the Frick collection, and in other important galleries, both public and private, have been photographed by him for reproduction in such national magazines as Life, Time, Fortune, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar.
In addition he has made a great many color illustrations, maintaining since 1925 a studio for this purpose. The Bourges Studio and the Bruehl Studio collaborated for several years. With the assistance of the Condé Nast engravers color illustrations were made which won acclaim from all parts of the world.
When I interviewed Mr. Bourges for POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY I asked particularly about his method of producing a color facsimile. He felt thère was little to tell either about himself or about his work, but on the contrary I was able to obtain some highly interesting material.
“The first thing jis to light the painting properly,” he said. “That may seem to you an absurd remark, but it is really of
the utmost importance. It’s more than a question of lighting an area evenly. You must consider how the picture was painted, and how the artist planned it to be seen.
“Some canvases need strong illumination, others are best photographed in a weak light. Sometimes we place all our lights to one side of the painting, to bring out the brush strokes and the impasto or the actual body of the pigment. With other pictures we use an overhead “studio” light. I’ve got over thirty of the best lighting units, and there’s no telling when I’ll need all of them.”
Mr. Bourges’ mastery of the difficult technique of color reproduction results from long experience, and from a keen sense of color values. The latter attribute cannot be learned or taught. Unfailing instinct plays so great a part in Bourges’ successful work that he cannot impart his technique to any great extent. But what he has to say is interesting, nevertheless.
“There isn’t any formula,” he says. “I can’t tell you how to light a painting any more than I could tell you ahead of time how to drive an automobile through traffic. Nobody can foretell just when, where, and how many times you will have to slow down, blow the horn, pass other cars, or stop between here and Times Square.”
When the picture has been lighted to best advantage, and the camera is set up and focused, Bourges proceeds as follows:
“We make four negatives on panchromatic plates. One of these is a normal black-and-white exposure, made through a color-correction filter of a shade depending on the lighting. The other three are made with red, green, and blue filters, or, to be accurate, with minus-blue, minus-red, and minus-yellow filters.”
“Do you always use a step-wedge?” I inquired, referring to the custom of including in the field of the negatives a strip of black, white, and grey tones for the purpose of measuring the relative contrasts of the negatives in preparing perfectly balanced prints.
“Not necessarily. A step-wedge usually
doesn’t mean a thing, unless it conforms with the density and range of the original. It is added to the picture; it wasn’t put there by the artist. After I’ve had an apprentice in here a couple of weeks, I can send him out, and he’ll bring back a perfect step-wedge every time, but his colorseparation negatives will be something else again.
“It’s much more subtle than that. This color-reproduction game is not a bunch of formulas. We’re not just technicians following the rules. We’ve got to get out of the originals everything we can, and a step-wedge is not an original.”
He held up to the window a brilliant full-color transparency, made up of three sheets of celluloid hinged like a book.
“This is what we call a color-guide,” he explained. “These are prints on celluloid acetate which we’ve sensitized here in the shop. You notice that they’re toned red, yellow, and blue—each of them was printed from the negative filtered with the complimentary color, or ‘minus’ filter. This scheme is the cheapest and most practical way we’ve found of making a proof to show our client and to guide the engraver. Of course, we can make a carbro print on paper, but it will cost the client a lot more money, and it’s unnecessary.”
The rest of the job is handled by the photoengraver. He carries on where the color photographer ends; it is a continuation of the process, not a separate operation.
“I’m a trained photoengraver myself,” Mr. Bourges admitted, “and I’m proud to carry the journeyman’s card.” Perhaps the card is one reason why his results are so outstanding; being entirely familiar with the engraver’s problems, he can furnish him with the kind of negatives best suited to his part of the job.
The engraver makes half-tone cuts directly from the original negatives. This is contrary to the usual black-and-white process, where special negatives are copied from the photographer’s paper prints. Such a procedure is wasteful, and the time will come when the photographer will be asked by publishers and editors for a negative instead of a glossy print. In the pages of Camera Work, the beautiful magazine edited by Alfred Stieglitz from 1902 to 1916, there are many direct photogravures, and the plates for Dr. Paul Wolff’s My First Ten Years with a Leica were made from the original 35 mm negatives, without any intermediate positives.
Once prepared, the half-tone cuts made from the filtered negatives are inked red, blue, and yellow, and are printed one over the other in perfect register on the paper which will form the pages of the book or magazine. Then the half-tone from the “normal” negative is printed in black. Theoretically, of course, the mixing of equal quantities of the primary pigments (red, blue, and yellow) will produce black. But in actual practice, such theoretical perfection is almost impossible to obtain, and so the “black-printer” covers up any slight inequalities, and sharpens the contrasts of the reproduction.
“What good, then, is the color-guide, the transparency? Is it just a proof
which you make for the client?” I asked.
“No, it has a very important part to play. It is impossible to make a halftone cut entirely by the mechanical process. It has to be re-etched by hand. The color etcher, whose job it is to do this re-etching, must have something to work from. The ideal thing, of course, would be the original painting, but we do most of our work from priceless originals. It would be unthinkable to bring these into the engraver’s shop. Right now there are two of my crews on the road, making negatives of paintings which are too valuable or awkward in size to be shipped on to New York.
“The color guide gives the photoen-
graver an idea of the original. Sometimes I’ve seen color etchers work from detailed color notes made on the spot, but I believe this system of ours to be much more accurate.”
Thus color reproduction is first a breakdown by the photographer and then assembly by the engravers and printers. Every step in this long process depends on the others, and all must balance perfectly.
“We select our dyes,” went on Mr. Bourges, “according to the kind of light we’re using to view the color guide, according to the color-sensitivity of the particular batch of panchromatic plates
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we have on hand, and according to the taking filters. In this business we find that it’s not efficient to use a one-shot or one-film transparency. One-shot cameras give only three negatives, and we need four. The engraver likes to work with original negatives made from the painting, which a one-film transparency doesn’t allow. Our color guides prove to the engraver that our negatives are good for the simple reason that the color guides are made directly from those negatives.
“Our biggest single job was the Pantheon de la Guerre panorama, in 1927. This was an enormous painting, 45 feet high and over 400 feet long. I took ten sets of negatives—forty in all—and made them match perfectly. That was some job! We had to build a platform on the stage for the camera, and arrange special lighting. The finished reproduction was published by the New York World, in sections. When completed the strips, put end to end, totaled more than ten feet! Later on the Chicago World’s Fair bought the plates and republished the pictures.”
In talking to Mr. Bourges I realized again that despite the ingenuity of our scientists and the precision of our instruments, skill and judgment born of long experience are still necessities. They can no more be replaced in Mr. Bourges’ work than they can in radio, for instance. There is no formula for placing a microphone in the high-fidelity broadcasting of great music. And there is no substitute for the keen ear in the control room. It is equally apparent in color facsimile work that the wonderful tools produced by the research laboratory must be used with taste and discrimination in reproducing paintings.—fctt