Controversial Color

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

May 14, 2018

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. Over hypnotizing black and white patterns, a calm voice claims that black and white is much purer than color. The hyperrealism of color, it points out, isn’t just overly crass, it’s unnecessary. Color is aid for people without imagination: “In the colored world, there’s no space for dreams.”

Of course this is wrong. We know that it’s the other way around: Color is realistic whereas the reduction to black and white adds some artistic sheen. Leica’s ad is so compelling because it rehashes one of the most controversial discussions in the history of photography: Is black and white better than color? It helps to understand that controversy in order to understand photography as a whole.

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”. It was the same line of argumentation used in Leica’s spot: 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 it from painting.

Helen Levitt

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.”

Act II: Seeing in Monochrome

Why would he think that? Most likely because black and white works so differently than color does.

Subjects that look great in black and white often don’t look good in color. It’s for the same reason that vivid color pictures look boring once desaturated: Good photos of either kind are taken with the particular quality of the medium in mind.

A Portrait by Tina Modotti

For the pioneers of photography, it had meant learning to shoot subjects that worked well in black and white—just look at the high contrast shots of the Modernist like Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, the abstract portraits of Man Ray. They didn’t just shoot in but also for black and white, emphasizing form, contrast, and shapes.

“Color negates all of photography’s three-dimensional values”, Cartier-Bresson would later claim. Black and white wasn’t limiting to him—photographers of the time knew how to use it.

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Brie, France, June 1968

These photographers’ way of taking pictures also explains their stance when color arrived at the scene: It forced them to look differently. After experimenting with color, Cartier-Bresson was reportedly so unhappy that he destroyed his negatives—and keeps being known for his monochrome work only.

In “Understanding a Photograph”, John Berger wrote that “(…) paintings, before the invention of photography, are the only visual evidence we have of how people saw the world.” I would argue that black and white photos, before the invention of color photography, also give us a clue how photographers saw the world: In beautiful shades of grey.

Just as black and white now looks reduced to our eyes, color must have seemed gaudy to the photographers of the 1950s: It looked like embellishment. When advertisement photographers embraced color, the artists’ disdain only grew. In 1959, Walter Evans dismissed it as follows: “There are four simple words for the matter, which must be whispered: Color photography is vulgar.”

Today, that stance seems absurd. Color photography has long been the standard way of picturing the world. What happened was yet another paradigm shift—and a small rebellion.

Act 3: The World is in Color

While artistic photographers turned their noses at it, color film quietly conquered the global mainstream. In the post-war years, photography turned from something only professionals did to a amateurs’ hobby. Coinciding with the invention of (usable) color film–Kodak introduced Kodachrome in 1936 and Ektachrome in the 1940s–which led to a gradual adoption of color photography.

And why wouldn’t it? Why would amateurs, unperturbed by dogma of black and white, use black and white if they could capture life in all of its brilliant colors?

In the black and white years, being a photographer had meant developing your own film, cropping pictures, and making prints. Processing color photographs, in contrast, was too complicated for many professional photographers—but lent itself perfectly to amateurs, who simply had their photos developed in a lab.

Most of all, it must just have seemed more realistic. Black and white “elevated a photograph from banality to a work of art”, but hobbyists just wanted to shoot realistic family photos. William Eggleston once summarized what must have been on the mind of many people at the time—and what we have come to accept: “The world is in color. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Eggleston, along with other photographers like Saul Leiter, Steven Shore, and Joel Meyerowitz are widely credited with pioneering color in the artistic realm. In the 1970s they made the switch from black and white to color—despite fierce opposition. “Photographers looked down on color or felt it was superficial or shallow”, Saul Leiter said. Meanwhile, Shore was told that shooting in color was a “disastrous career move”—by no one less than photography legend Paul Strand.

Saul Leiter

They wanted to rebel. To break out of the monochrome world that had been prescribed by earlier generations. Joel Meyerowitz’ recent retrospective at C/O Berlin included plenty of quotes demonstrating that the photographer perceived color as a way to break with convention:

“What I saw was that the color image had more information in it, simple as that! There was so much more to see and consider, whereas black and white reduced the world to shades of gray. And while that reduction had provided us with more that a hundred years of remarkable images, we were entering a new era at the time, and color, for me anyway, seemed to offer a challenge to the conventions that always undermine any medium.”

William Eggleston, who once proclaimed to be “at war with the obvious” followed a similar line of thinking: He was able to take “perfect fake Cartier-Bressons” but wanted to do something different, to challenge the status quo. “When I switched from black and white to color, the only thing that changed was the film,” he said.

William Eggleston

That isn’t quite true: The switch from black and white, as championed by these photographers, went hand in hand with a change in subject matter. They started shooting subjects that weren’t beholden to the logic of black and white—less geometric, high-contrast settings, but much rather everyday occurrences where the colors stood out. Eggleston shot shopping malls, Leiter the smudged colors of a rainy city, Shore the vivid mundane.

Steven Shore

In the excellent book “William Eggleston—From Color to Black and White”, art curator Agnes Sire writes:

It’s no coincidence that artists like Eggleston and Shore managed to picture banal subjects in an interesting way, and it was their use of color that helped them accomplish it. The transition from black and white to color was as much a transition from supposedly salient subjects—like the photojournalism championed by Magnum—to the more poetic everyday object.

At first, nobody wanted to see this kind of work. Now, the early exhibits of these photographers are legendary. It took a while for the artistic world to open its eyes to a new kind of subject—and to color photography. While black and white had turned the mundane artistic, the pioneering color photos were successful exactly because they were mundane: They alerted the general public to the hidden beauty in everyday life.

William Eggleston’s famous tricycle picture, an example of everyday photography.

Epilogue: An Unresolved Question

Color is no longer controversial. It is simply the standard. Today black and white is mostly used by photographers who enjoy the classic look, or in fashion shoots emulating the modernist style, or by marketers who want to convey a vague notion of class and sophistication.

That doesn’t mean the controversy has been fully resolved, nor can it be. It’s not about being right or wrong, being realistic or snobbish, forward-looking or old-fashioned. The controversy is fundamentally about how you think the human imagination works–or how it should work.

“Color is not a question, but rather an answer”, Joel Meyerowitz has said. For a photographer, it is an decision among many others, all part of their way of seeing and interpreting the world.

So let’s close with something the photographer Alec Soth said in an interview with Aperture a few years ago, looking back at a black and white world:

“Sometimes you think, eighty years ago the world must have been black and white. But of course it didn’t actually look like those photographs. The way that it was photographed shaped that reality just as much then as now.” –Alec Soth


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