Thinking About Photography
Dedicated to expanding our ideas about photography
Photography and Color
March 1st - April 30th
Kodak ... there is a name you don’t hear too often anymore ... and, for those of us raised in the film era, who knew that sentence could even be a possibility? There was a time when that yellow box of film was pretty much the only game in town. Actually, there was a time when serious "fine art" photographers only worked in black-and-white. Color, or its English cousin Colour, was for advertising, family snaps, official portraits. It’s hard now to imagine working in the confines of one company (hmmmm…iPhone……hmmmm) but the point is, that prior to digital, the average photographer had very little control over color in terms of the technical aspects. Yes, there were outliers, but the vast majority of us spent our lives in an exacting hunt for color corrected images, usually on transparencies (aka slides), developing our abilities to discern and correct even a few units of magenta or cyan, and buying film in emulsion batches so the correction test would hold for the group.
© Sarah Moon, Coincidences, Arena Editions, 2001
As a photo student during that time, I became very interested in those outliers, much of it happening in fashion where photographers like Sarah Moon and Sheila Metzner were ignoring the idea of “correct” and exploring using color in much more expressive ways. It really blew my mind that you could not only completely disregard detailed sharpness, but that color could be what you wanted it to be. In the art world, it wasn’t until the 60s that the Museum of Modern Art had a solo show of color photography (Ernst Hass) but it was a decade later, when they showed William Eggleston’s work, that it was really fully accepted.
Motion pictures had more options because they were shot on negative film…obviously starting with b&w, but by the 50s the majority of moviemaking was shot in color. Now "colorists" play an important part in working with directors and cinematographers to create a color palette that contributes to the mood and narrative of a film. Amélie, one of my favorites, uses reds and greens to wrap its characters in a glowing warm world, while Moonlight's lush and saturated colors are in sharp contrast to the harsh realities of the characters' lives.
"'Normal' Kodak Shirley Card" by Rosa Menkman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In terms of color and skin tone, photography has a lot to answer for and any discussion about color and photography would be incomplete without referencing the Kodak Shirley cards and the deeper meaning behind "correct" and "normal" color. The Shirley cards were there to set an industry standard of what skin tones should be...but, as you can see, that only referred to pale ones. Darker skin tones were willfully ignored by Kodak executives. In fact, nothing was done until the chocolate and furniture industries complained that they were unable to render the subtle and beautiful tones in their products that Kodak chose to change and attempt to expand on their tonal range. Even now, there is an assumption that darker skin tones cannot be fully rendered if surrounded by light tones and only recently, with the Pixel 6's "True Tone", have digital cameras been optimized to render all skin tones. Many artists have done interesting work exploring the theme of color/race in photography. Angélica Dass, in her Humanae project, has photographed over 4,000 people where "The background for each portrait is tinted with a color tone identical to a sample of 11 x 11 pixels taken from the nose of the subject and matched with the industrial pallet Pantone®"
"Angelica Dass, Humanae" by TEDxMadrid Photos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
In this showcase, artists have fully embraced color as an important narrative aspect in their work. From lush noir tones to delicate saturations, their color palettes help to set a tone and mood. Some explore color in its political and cultural aspects while also pushing the boundaries of traditional materials. The pandemic and lockdown play a role in several photographers' work and shows the ability of art to help us reimagine our experiences. In the last showcase I included photography books and it was such a success that I'll be continuing it for the rest of this year. Many thanks to Douglas Stockdale, photographer, founder and editor of PhotoBook Journal, for once again, curating a wonderful set of photography books where how the artist works with color is an important element.