Q: Who was Franklin P. Knott?

‘Who was Franklin P. Knott?’ — Myrt

By: Michael Redmon

Franklin Price Knott was a trailblazing photographer — one of
the first to have his color images appear in National Geographic
magazine. A world traveler who logged hundreds of thousands of
miles, he eventually settled into a stately home off Channel Drive.
He had come a long way from his modest beginnings in rural

Born in 1854, Knott was the 10th son of a father who moved from
job to job, farm to farm, in an attempt to eke out a hardscrabble
living for his family. Demonstrating artistic talent at a young
age, Franklin won scholarships to two Massachusetts schools and
eventually made his way to Europe for further study. In Paris, he
married and began to carve out a successful career as a painter of
miniature portraits. He then began having eye trouble and his wife
urged him to take up the new field of color photography. What was
initially a hobby became, within a few years, a new career that
brought Knott international fame. Knott used the autochrome process
of color photography, first marketed in France in 1907. In this
process, potato-starch grains were dyed in primary colors and then
deployed as a filter onto a photographic glass-plate negative. The
process was difficult to master. Exposure times were very long; the
glass plates were heavy and easily damaged; the camera equipment
bulky. If one needed to go out into the field, suitcases of
chemicals had to be dragged along and makeshift darkrooms erected
for developing the plates. A travel photographer needed to be part
artist and part pack mule.

The Knotts discovered Santa Barbara around 1905, when they
stayed at the Potter Hotel. They soon were spending winters here
and began buying up property around the South Coast, including land
off Channel Drive. It was not until 1917 that they built their home
on what is now Fairway Road. The house was razed in 2000.

In the April 1916 issue of National Geographic magazine, Editor
Gilbert H. Grosvenor authored a paean to the wonders of the United
States titled “The Land of the Best.” Accompanying the article were
23 autochromes by Franklin Price Knott. The images included one of
the husband-and-wife team of modern dance, Ruth St. Denis and Ted
Shawn, who appeared in Santa Barbara numerous times and under whom
Martha Graham trained; an image of the Santa Barbara Mission; and a
“Sunrise Setting the Morning Heavens on Fire” over West Beach and
Stearns Wharf. Another series of autochromes, chronicling Knott’s
travels in India, Holland, Tunisia, Algeria, and the U.S., appeared
in the magazine in September. Knott’s wife died in 1926, and in the
following year he took off at the age of 73 on perhaps his greatest
adventure. The photographer embarked on an extended 40,000-mile
tour of Japan, China, the Philippines, Bali, and India. All the
while Knott was making autochromes for National Geographic and he
captured some extremely rare views including the first color
pictures of the royal court of Kashmir. He recalled his departure
from Bali: “A heavy surf ran. To reach the ship’s boat, one had to
wade out. I wrapped my precious autochrome plates in my raincoat
and held them on my head to keep them dry and waded waist-deep
against incoming breakers.”

Knott often exhibited his autochromes around Santa Barbara. One
of the most memorable shows was held at the Potter Theatre in 1915
as a benefit for Cottage Hospital. This show included views from a
1913 motoring trip from Denver to Santa Barbara, quite a journey in
that early age of the automobile. Knott succumbed to a heart attack
in 1930. His autochrome work is considered a milestone in the
history of color photography.


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