Saturday, January 31, 2004

The transition to colour was incredibly gradual

David Sucher links to some truly magnificent colour photographs (which use up lots of bandwidth and will take a long time to download if you are using dialup) of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s and then observes that his psychological reaction is to the fact that they are in colour

The past was in color

In color.

That's probably one of the harder things to grasp, at least for those of us who grow up during the transition from B&W to color images. You keep thinking that Ric Burns was society's art director.

What I see as an interesting point here is actually the way David sees himself as someone who grew up during the transition from black and white to color images, and that he presumably thinks that people who are either older or younger (but especially younger, I suspect) did not grow up during the transition from black and white to colour, and that other people grew up in the era or black and white or the era of colour. That is, the implied point is that there was a moment (or at least a fairly brief period) of a few years in which most of the transition occurred. And I think that this is false. I might (and I think do) concede that there was a psychological moment in which people made the transition, and I will get to this a little more later.

When you look into this a little, it is possible to find brilliant, clear, full colour photographs from the last decades of the 19th century. The reason for this is relatively simple, which is that if you can take black and white photographs you can take colour photographs. Just split the image into three, run one through a blue filter, one through a green filter, and one through a red filter and record each image on a piece of film (or actually, at the time, on a glass negative). You have three images. Given those three images you have everything you need to print a colour photograph. However, designing a suitable process through which you can print that colour photograph clearly was initially a little tricky, and 19th century colour photographs could not be readily and accurately printed in the 19th century. However, they can be printed today, and I have seen some spectacular colour photographs from the 19th century, which are as clear and beautiful as photographs taken any time since. (In particular, I once saw a wonderful collection of photographs of Russia, but I cannot find any online).

What we would now see as more conventional colour photography in which there was a single colour negative came later. Two colour processes were developed in the 1920s and full three colour processes were pretty much perfected by the mid 1930s. This applied for both still cameras and motion pictures. But, of course, as David observed, colour did not take over immediately. Colour was initially more expensive, but black and white was still widely used for stylistic as well as cost reasons, and simply because black and white processes led to longer lasting, more stable photographs. (One reason we are not used to seeing old colour photographs is that black and white pictures have stood the test of time better). And in the world of movies, colour was well and truly available by the end of the 1930s, and many colour films from this time survive to this day, and look as good as ever.

But once colour film-making was available, did black and white go away? The answer is no. Black and white motion pictures were made in large numbers until the mid 1960s, although the percentage of black and white as a percentage of all pictures gradually dropped, but black and white was used if the film-makers thought it was the right look for the mood of the film. After that, black and white went away. But it didn't do so suddenly. After about 1968, there were essentially no black and white films made by Hollywood studios any more. Similarly, black and white was used widely in portrait photography into the 1960s and was used almost exclsively for artistic photographs into the 1970s, but then this also went away, although not as completely as for the situation with movies.

Why did this gradual transition become sudden in the late 1960s? Well, there is of course one medium that I haven't mentioned that also went from black and white to colour, and that is of course television. The mid to late 1960s was the time when (in the US, at least) people bought colour televisions in large numbers. This transition was different from the previous transitions in one very big way: which was that the consumer had to buy new equipment and spend a lot of money. Colour televisions were expensive. Buying one was psychologically a big thing, in a way that (for instance) colour movies were not psychologically a big thing. People who had spent all this money and bought them really did not want to watch old fashioned black and white programs on them that they could have equally well watched on the old television. (Colour movies and colour still photography did not require new equipment or additional expenditure). Black and white television programming was perceived as something that was "old fashioned" and ratings for black and white programs dropped compared to ratings for colour programming.

And the attitude went further than just television. Suddenly black and white photography in all forms was also perceived as "old fashioned". People did not want to watch black and white movies, or to take black and white phtographs. Whereas black and white cinema had existed alongside colour cinema for more than three decades, it suddenly did so no longer. Audiences suddenly started avoiding black and white films, and studios stopped making them. (Black and white films are still made very occasionally, but studios are extremely reluctant to approve them. Only the most influential of directors have the clout to get them made). Similarly, people rather dramatically switched to colour for still photography, even though colour still photography had also been around for more than three decades. When people think about the time when the "transition to colour" took place, it is this psychological moment that usually comes to mind, whereas in reality the transition to colour has been going on as a gradual process since the 19th century, and we are not entirely there and it continues to go on. (A relatively recent step was the transition to the printing of colour photographs in newspapers). Everyone who has lived during the last century has lived through the "transition to colour". However, there was only one psychological moment in which it was really noticeable. And that was in about 1968.

Update: Brian Micklethwait linked to this post from Samizdata, and in the comments section hylas has pointed me to the photographs of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, which are indeed the photographs I was thinking of. I made a slight mistake in terms of the dates: these photographs are mostly from the first and early second decades of the 20th century. The details of the process, which I have got right in essentials but wrong in some fairly minor details, are here. And rather than attempting to print them, Prokudin-Gorskii displayed them by projecting red, green, and blue images onto the same screen. Although this was most ingenious, there was nothing that at least in theory could not have been done several decades earlier. (In fact, the "lantern projector" illustrated dates from 1889, which suggests that somebody was at least trying to project full colour images 15 years earlier. As to where the actual images being projected came from, that is another question).

1 comment:

donald roller wilson said...

Dude, your blog is WAYYY outdated. Why did you give up?

Blog Archive