Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Is it Now or Then?

Eternal Rome, 1996

When I started studying the history of photography back in the 1960’s, I saw very few color photographs. In my mind, “old” pictures meant daguerreotypes or the black-and-white Civil War field photographs of Matthew Brady and crew. Even after the technology of color photography had become more accessible around the turn of the Twentieth Century, the famous photojournalists of the day continued to shoot primarily in b&w.

For me, the b&w imagery reinforced the distance between then and now. It suggested a much earlier, primitive time, and that the subjects of the photographs were likewise older and primitive. It’s like when you saw the first moving pictures. The early motion picture technology made everything in them moved either unnaturally fast or in a jagged manner.

A few years ago I saw some color photographs of French soldiers taken around 1916. They weren’t the first color photographs by any means. But I’m pretty sure they were the oldest color photos I’d ever seen. What really impressed me about them, though, was not the novelty of color, but that the use of color made people who’d previously been rendered distant and “historic” by sepia toning or decayed b&w emulsion suddenly very much alive and real.

It actually shook me up a little. The first time I saw the French photographs I thought they were some kind of hoax to fool the ignorant. But the ignorant one turned out to be me. Since that time I’ve seen more color photographs from the turn of the last Century. They continue to startle me in their reality.

Here are some you might enjoy.

From 1907.

From 1909.

From 1917.

Eternal Rome, above, is not an old picture and obvious not a color picture. But I like it because of its seeming timelessness.

1 comment:

  1. Wow--those photos you linked to are amazing! Wonderful! And I love the one at the top of your post here today, too. Black and white and sepia photos always appeal to me, but those color photos are incredible, too. I always enjoy seeing the clothing from other eras, too.