Art History Reader: The History of Color Photography

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Mickalene Thomas, Sista Sista Lady Blue, 2007, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away.


Did you know you can create a color photograph using Jell-O? What about potato starch? Okay, making a color photograph using kitchen staples isn’t as easy as making a Jell-O salad in a mold, but it is possible! While we see the world in color, the photographic technological advances took a long while to catch up. From hand-coloring and layering to using mercury, gelatin, or starches, scientists worked to invent the perfect process to emulate the color in our world. While we may have it easy today, being able to take a color photograph with the camera on our phone, the history to get to this point is just over one hundred years old.


The majority of the photographic processes developed in the nineteenth century were monochromatic, meaning they only used one color. The cyanotype, invented by Sir John Herschel, was one of the first photographic processes and it created a monochromatic blue version of each image. These monochrome processes were able to show the values, or the variations of light and dark, of the world around us, but they could not replicate the color we see. Color is a reflection of light bouncing off the objects we see. All of the colors technically exist in white light, the light we traditionally use to see the world, but of course we see certain objects as specific colors. Take, for example, a red apple. All of the colors in the white light are absorbed into the apple except for the “red” light, which is reflected and is what we see. (For more information on how this works, check out the Introduction to Color Theory reader!). Scientists wanted to find a way that cameras could see and capture the light and colors within it, not just the values. Thus began the color photography adventure.


Most of the monochrome processes could be colorized, meaning they could be tinted or hand painted to add color to the image. While the result is a colored photograph, the photograph itself does not capture the accurate colors that exist in the light. In the early 1900s, many photographers would create color photographs using layers of carbon tissue comprised of pigmented gelatin on a paper base. In a complex and fragile process, these layers would be exposed to light and those areas of gelatin not hardened would be washed away. Artists like Nicholas Muray often used this process to get vibrant and surreal colors, as seen in the portrait of his lover and artist in her own right, Frida Kahlo, in Frida in New York. He used this process well into the twentieth century as nothing could get the bright colors quite like carbon printing. While this process layered color using light, it was not successful at truly capturing color. However, the Lippmann process, invented by physicist Gabriel Lippmann, was successful in capturing the different wavelengths of light and the colors that were reflected. While it did not require any dyes or artificial color, it was unfortunately very complex, and the resulting image could only be viewed in limited light and could not be replicated, making it unsuccessful commercially. But Lippmann received the Nobel Prize for Physics for this invention in 1908, so no hard feelings? 


The first semi-successful color photography process was the three-color process, where three monochromatic images were taken using colored light filters in red, green, and blue. The separations of color, when shown layered together as transparencies, created a simulation of colors and values. This method, known as an additive color method, was used as a basis for the first commercially successful color processes. Additive color methods work by mixing colored lights or slides together to recreate colors. In 1903, the Lumière brothers used these processes as the basis for the Autochrome Lumière. These were glass plates with one side coated with dyed potato starches that would essentially work as color filters, carbon black, and gelatin-silver emulsion. When the plate was exposed to light in a camera, the light would enter through the “color filters” first, then the emulsion, which would result in a full-color positive image. The colors are not as vibrant as what we have come to expect from color photography. They often have a soft, almost hand-colored quality to them, as seen in Edward Steichen’s Clara Steichen with Bowl of Oranges. This was the primary method for creating color photographs until the legendary Eastman Kodak Company came onto the scene.


In 1936, Kodak developed the lauded Kodachrome, a color reversal slide film. Known for their slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest!”, the film had three layers of color emulsions on one base that could be loaded into the camera and exposed just as traditional black and white film. When the roll was fully exposed, it would be sent back to Kodak for development. The development was complex, where each individual emulsion layer had to be developed as a white-silver image, then the silver had to be removed, and the remaining developed yellow, magenta, and cyan layers would show a full color image. This was a subtractive process, where colors are subtracted from white light by dyes. Essentially, three colors would absorb their complementary color of light and then be dyed and superimposed to create a positive. Their Kodachrome film captured vibrant colors that were brighter than life. Artist Stephen Shore is known for his series of roadtrip photographs that capture the vivid landscapes of the west. You can see the amazing blue hues in the Oregon landscape in U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon. The produced images were positives, rather than the traditional negatives, and sent back to the photographers as individual transparent slides. At the same time, the German company Agfa created an even less complex process for development, where the colors could all be developed at once, but Kodak had the monopoly on the market. Kodachrome held the color film market for years, but its complex development was too expensive to continue into the twenty-first century. It was officially discontinued in 2010, an event many photographers still mourn today. These systems helped develop many future color film processes. 


During the 1960s and 70s, there were many options for color film. Aside from Kodachrome, other color film types were produced as color negatives, which were easier for individuals to develop at home into as many prints as one's heart desires. Many people still didn’t want to develop their own photographs and luckily for them a new product was on the market - in 1963, the instant color Polaroid was available. Polaroid images were the closest thing to the instant gratification we receive today for many years. These images were able to immediately capture the reflected colored light, producing a positive image. The unique shape and size of the Polaroid photograph is due to the chemistry that exists within it; when the photograph is exposed and pushed through the camera, the areas that hold the chemistry are popped and the chemistry is released, developing the photograph. The color development itself is very similar to the Kodachrome development - but without the wait! These instant film types have had a resurgence in recent years, known for their vintage and nostalgic vibes.


It’s important to acknowledge the relation of light and color in photography to the inherent racial bias in twentieth century Western society. It’s not new to hear that the established norm was set up for white people; unfortunately, color photography and film is no different. When color film was developed in studios, a Shirley card was often used to check the calibration of the colors. The Shirley card was the standard for color, but it was very constrictive with what it showed; it was an image of a white woman with brown hair and primary colors around her. Technicians would print the Shirley card and if any colors looked “off” (too yellow, too dark, too light, etc.), they would adjust their process. For many, the Shirley card did not represent them. In using this standard, anyone with darker skin often had their photographs and portraits look underdeveloped or without the same contrast that would be seen in life. There are nuances to the colors that were not visible, and many family photo albums were affected for years. This lack of representation is important to recognize and rectify. It wasn’t until the 1970s, twenty years later, that the Shirley card would feature women who were Black, Asian, and other skin tones. Artists continue to address these issues of racial bias in photography. Mickalene Thomas only uses film when she shoots her photographs of Black women through a queer-feminist lens. Her work discusses the idea of Blackness and feminism, often using poses that reference Odalisque paintings and the traditional hetero normative framework. She greatly considers the colors within her images, using aesthetics reminiscent of the 1970s. Many of these issues with color in film would be addressed with the development of digital photography.


Many of us take digital photography for granted. We can easily take the phone out of our pocket and capture anything in its precise colors, and then use an app to edit it and make the pinks and blues really pop! Though it wouldn't be refined for another twenty years, the first digital camera was developed in 1975. In that year, Bryce Bayer invented the Bayer Color Filter Array, which allowed one image sensor to capture color, a revelation that is still used today. These sensors are very sensitive to certain colors of light which move through a filter first. The sensor includes a series of pixels that records specific wavelengths of light and color. These were developed in cameras and have only become more advanced, and smaller - most in phones today are around one centimeter! Artists continue to experiment with the lengths they can push to alter colors digitally. Artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi uses digitally enhanced portraits to create work about reclaiming their Blackness and gender. They use everyday objects like closepins, toiletpaper rolls, and latex gloves, but transform their appearances with multiples and new uses, in reference to high fashion. Muholi will often digitally darken the appearance of their skin, making the color and contrast even more intense, as evident in Ngwane I, Oslo. This manipulation can make artists’ messages more intense.


While we all have access to advanced digital cameras today, many artists choose more traditional approaches to color photography. This history of color photography within art is rather rocky. Just as any black sheep of the family, photography has long been the black sheep of the art world, and color photography even more so. When it was developed, color photography wasn’t taken seriously even by established art photographers. It was rather seen as a gimmick, as the artists usually sent the film in to be developed rather than doing it themselves. William Eggleston is often referred to as the father of color photography. Unfortunately for Eggleston, his photography idol at the time, Henri Cartier-Bresson, did not agree with the potential of color photography; the first time he met him, he stated, “William, color is bullshit.” While Cartier-Bresson may not have appreciated Eggleston’s eye, Eggleston influenced and may have created the American color photography movement. One of his most famous prints, and most risque, is Greenwood, Mississippi, which depicts a red room with a single bare lightbulb in the middle and a poster of sex positions in the corner. The color of the red is completely overwhelming, and when looked at as a true color print, rather than a digital representation, the dye looks like a wet, freshly painted wall. Red is often a difficult color to work with for photographers, as it rarely looks as vibrant as it does in life.


Eggleston’s use of color film influenced other artists to experiment with its vibrancy, too. Nan Goldin’s Nan One Month After Being Battered shows the reality of domestic violence in stunning color, while Cindy Sherman’s Untitled emphasizes the outrageous fashion of the 1980s. Some artists don’t like the vibrancy of certain films and look for a softer touch. Justine Kurland is one such artist, who appreciates the process of creating full, complex compositions. Her work Bathers was created using an 8x10 camera with color film, where each scene is carefully created between her and the models to inspire a photograph reminiscent of a Romantic painting. Kurland works to plan each composition carefully without taking more photographs than necessary. Her use of film gives rise to soft, feminine images. Many artists continue to experiment with what color film can do in its color representation and process as compared to digital.


Today, the ability to change almost any color in our digital photographs is as easy as opening an app on our phone. We no longer have to wait weeks to see how our photographs developed, or use kitchen goods to mimic colors. While some artists continue to use the methods of Jell-O, dyed potato starches, and Polaroids, each of these color advancements over the past hundred years has made it possible to capture the world in our pocket more vibrantly. While we may have the world of alterations in the abundance of apps, many of us still wish Kodak didn’t take our Kodachrome away. *cue Paul Simon*


Works of Art Referenced:


For more information on color photography, the additive and subtractive processes, and the George Eastman House history, check out the videos below:

Epiphany Knedler

Adjunct Instructor, Forsyth Technical Community College

Comments (4)

Eric Cartman

I've lately taken up photography as a pastime. However, I ran into a problem of having some of my negative film ruined so I purposely started altering it and I love it so much more now!

Eric Cartman


lucasna nancy

Photography seems like such a lazy art form compared to painting.

among us

I read that there are people who purposefully make older, but originally in color, photos black and white to make people think that the photos are very old and from a long time ago, like a lot of the civil rights photos.