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In the 1950s, early color photography was widely scorned. Now it’s the default. What happened?


Prologue: No Space for Dreams

In 2015, Leica released a beautiful, ridiculous ad. It was for a special product in their lineup; a digital camera that only takes black and white photos.

The clip itself is strangely compelling. Set to hypnotizing black and white patterns, a calm voiceover says B&W is purer than color. The hyperrealism of color, it points out, isn’t just overly crass, it’s unnecessary. Color is an aid for people without imagination: “In the color world, there’s no space for dreams.”

Of course this is wrong. If anything it’s the other way around: color is actual, we don’t see in monochrome. Insisting on black and white is often a pretentious turn. Leica’s ad rehashes one of the oldest debates in the history of photography: Which is better, black and white or color? The two do different things, the debate is fruitless. However, it helps to know about this *controversy* in order to understand how we and photography got here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row el_class=”no-margin”][vc_column][image_carousel_alternative images=”314,317,318,310,309,308″ onclick=”lightbox” items=”1″ items_on_small_screens=”3″ navigation=”1″ slide_by=”by_page” navigation_style=”2″ slide_number_status=”1″ style=”1″ fade=”1″ lazyload=”1″ img_size=”large” css_class=”dark”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row el_class=”no-margin”][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Act I: Color is Bullshit

Let’s recall that photography only became an art form relatively recently. When it came about at the end of the 19th century, observers had considered it “too literal to compete with works of art” because it was unable to “elevate the imagination”. Leica’s ad used the same line of argument — that something too realistic couldn’t possibly be artistic.

At first, photography competed with fine art: It required long exposure times and used heavy, static equipment. The most popular subjects were landscapes and portraits — both hallmarks of painting.

Portable equipment or rolls of film (a blessing compared to the unwieldy cameras or glass plates used before) only became available around the First World War. It allowed photographers to take pictures in previously unimaginable settings — and to differentiate the photographic medium from painting.

Pioneers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt did it by deploying the realism in unexpected ways. With their “decisive moments” and unexpected subjects they froze the unseen, demonstrating that photography was about beautiful compositions and subjects far different from painting. The snapshot aesthetic emerged. Street photography was born.

These now legendary photographers learned their craft in a black and white world. Which is to say that whenever they took a picture, they knew it to be in black and white. The abstraction was a natural quality of the picture — just like the two-dimensionality of the shot.

Color photography only became practical in the mid-1950s after film manufacturers had invented processes that made color pictures sufficiently easy to develop. It was another technological shift to change the medium, just as the portable camera and film before. And perhaps inevitably, photographers now assumed the role that the defenders of painting had before them: They refused to embrace the new technology.

Rather than enjoy their sudden ability to depict the world more realistically, artistic photographers shunned color. In their minds, serious, documentary and fine art photography had to be shot in black-and-white. Photography legend Henri Cartier-Bresson, known for his evocative monochrome shots, even quipped that “color is bullshit.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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