Category: Color

Early color film, Cuban intensity, painted sonatas.

Instant Gratification

Italian photographer Claudia Cuomo is making sure instant photography sticks around in the digital age.

Press the shutter and hear the whizz of the camera. You pull out the photo with a satisfying snap, just as a shimmer of color appears in its white frame. Everything about instant photography is iconic: From the unwieldy cameras and their washed out pictures, right up to the (widely-debunked) call to “shake it like a Polaroid picture”.
An iconic status is helpful when technology moves on. Like vinyl records or video tapes, instant photography has been utterly disrupted: Take a picture with your phone and you can see it instantly, no waiting let alone shaking required. Polaroid cameras and their siblings are paradoxes in our age of digital photography, but they’ve nevertheless stuck around. Their fans have carved out a niche for it; one in which people like Claudia Cuomo now thrive.


The Italian photographer uses instant film to create moody pictures, playing to the very strength of their deficiencies: She picks out scenes where the odd colors, ghostly skin tones, and missing detail add something to the picture. Her compositions and subjects combine the film’s inherent surrealism with a sense of adventure.
“Shooting Polaroids means taking a risk,” she tells me. “The camera is a tool and a toy at the same time; you never know what you’ll get.” It’s precisely the challenge that she enjoys. When I speak with her via video call, she regularly disappears from sight to retrieve another model from her impressive collection of instant cameras; each letting her experiment in new ways. “Each one gets you different results. They’re mechanical instruments, very imprecise ones. But that’s what makes them so different from digital cameras.”


When I mention the paradoxical staying power of instant photography, Claudia laughs: “It’s simple: When a shot costs €1, you take each picture only once.” She’ll shoot digital as well, but finds it particularly fascinating to create pictures that are so unique. Although you can digitize them by scanning, there’s only one physical copy, and even that is determined by your camera, the age of the film, or the temperature and light when it developed.
“People are looking for something real, for something authentic,” she says. “An instant photo can’t be retouched. It’s a proof of something real. Sure, it may also be imperfect, but who cares? That’s exactly what’s so great about it.”
“In fact, many are reassured by the physicality of the pictures: Sometimes I shoot the same thing twice to give a picture away.”


Claudia came to photography from an unusual angle: She works as a model and eventually switched from being before to behind the the camera lens. It has given her a unique vantage point from which to look at the medium—and a conviction that the authenticity we’re all after is very much a trend.
“Right now, everybody wants lifestyle shots: No make-up, only natural lighting.” In the fashion world, agencies will ask for ‘polas’ or other such snapshots as part of the casting. That type of photography is a sure way of getting un-retouched natural light pictures.
That’s a style, of course, contains its very own paradox: “Instant photography has a fake allure of cheapness. That makes it seem more democratic than it actually is: The film is quite expensive.” It doesn’t dissuade her, though: “I just love how the photos come out. There’s nothing quite like it.”

"The West has always had a discomfort with colors”

Living in Cuba, Rose Marie Cromwell encountered the strange, the surreal, and the spiritual. With her photos, she wove it into a story full of surprises.

On your website, you write that you’re interested in the space between the political and the spiritual. What does that mean?
To me, the political is anything pertaining to the physical world, and the spiritual is the non-physical. In the vaguest sense, that’s what I’m interested in: The interaction between those two worlds. But more specifically, I am fascinated by how people negotiate geography, politics, gender, race with their personal understanding of spirituality.
shadow 008
Your book “El Libro Supremo de la Suerte” (The Supreme Book of Luck), is inspired by the spiritual as well. Can you describe what it depicts?
In Cuba, they have a number system from 1 to 100 called La Charada. Each number stands has a different meaning such as bicycle or revolution. People use it to play the underground lottery: If a butterfly comes into your kitchen in the morning, you may consider playing number 2. I liked that people were using La Charada to give meaning to everyday, banal things. And that was how I wanted to portray my own experience of living in the country – not with pictures of old cars and cigars, but with experiences of everyday things.



 
You assembled them in the book.
I love photo books and have always wanted to make one. I realized that putting the work into book form lets me control the viewer’s’ experience and also create a narrative arc. The numbers and the references to La Charada seemed to fit that relationship due to the fact that La Charada is often presented as a booklet…
How do the images relate to the numbers?
I was staying at the house of my friend Milagros in Havana, and she was calculating numbers to play in the Cuban underground lottery. And I saw my own phone number in the States written down on one of the papers of her calculations. That relationship seemed really interesting because we had met on the street by chance a few years ago. I photographed that piece of paper and started thinking more about the numbers and how they relate to my images. That’s when I decided to incorporate them into the book as chapter markers.
You have said that you like creating a narrative arc – how are the pictures connected?
There’s no developing story, but you start drawing connections between different images in the book in a nonlinear way. I think that is also the way people navigate this world and make sense of different geographies – whether they be tangible or spiritual: Not by chronological order but by making their own connections.
MB 002 martica 001 
What I find striking about the pictures is that they are tied together not by subject matter but by an almost intuitive visual language.
I guess I developed my personal aesthetic during this project. I like to take risks in order to not to get stuck in one way of making images, but there are certain things I am always drawn too. Take the bright light: A lot of photographers don’t like it, but I do – I like the theatrical feeling shadows create and how sunlight allows me to have control: Put something into the shadows, leave something out. That kind of performance became a part of my work halfway through this project: Preconceiving images before making them.
07_stick 
…and in a way, you found yourself set up as well: There’s a story in the book about how you photographed a stick leaning against a wall and later found out that a man had deliberately put it there “because people like looking at it”.
I worked as a documentary photographer prior to this project, but I didn’t feel like this approach was honest to my experience there. I didn’t really know what I was trying to say about the country that hadn’t already been said, or that I could add as a non-native. But I am interested in how the macro affects the micro – and noticed you can tell stories more effectively when you center yourself in them. The story of the stick is like that: It makes it obvious to the viewer that I am not trying to hide my voice, but to overtly let them know that this is my story.

 
As a photographer, the story is of course a very visual one. Next to the bright lights, you show a lot of strong colors. Do you deliberately seek them out?
Not really – I plan out the action and performance, but I don’t have the color scheme worked out. And I don’t usually do much post-production. But with the image of the stick that you have mentioned, I can admit that I did: I changed the wall from blue to yellow. I am not really sure why that needed to be yellow, it was just my intuition.
That’s a great example of how colors work in subconscious ways.
There’s a book that really influenced my thinking about color: Michael Taussig’s “What Color Is the Sacred?”. He is a philosopher and anthropologist and talks about the relationship between colonialism and color. He thinks that the West, as the colonizers, has always had a discomfort with color. Whereas the people who have been colonized, indigenous populations, have always attached so much meaning and prominence to bright colors. Reading that helped me clarify how I was relating to color in my life.
For example?
People say that there are some colors that attract different energies than others. When you don’t want to attract negative energy, you are supposed to wear white. So there are things colors are doing that many in “the west” or Colonizer countries are not aware of, it doesn’t even cross our minds.
…which returns us to the way you have described the spiritual: A non-physical manifestation that affects us, whether we want to or not. Perhaps we should be paying more attention to it?
I agree. Colors can seem downright erratic in certain cultures: It almost makes people uncomfortable if someone wears strong colors, for instance. Someone who is used to living in a place like Copenhagen, where they don’t have too much color, it can be startling.
Rose Marie Cromwell is a photographic and video artist currently living and working between New York, Panama, and Cuba.
Rose Marie Cromwell is an American photographic and video artist currently living and working between New York, Panama, and Cuba. See more of her work on her website: www.rosemariecromwell.com

"Psychedelics offer us life in high-definition"

Amanda Feilding is a leading advocate for the use of psychedelics to cure mental illnesses. She told us why LSD is not a party drug but should be taken while visiting the pyramids.

When talking about psychedelics, vivid colors immediately come to mind – is that the most intense sensation one gets from it?
Colors are certainly a very important part of the hallucinogenic experience, possibly the strongest sensation even.

Description. Photo by Robert Funke.

Amanda Fielding is the Founder and Director of the Beckley Foundation. Photo by Robert Funke.


How come?
Our research has shown that psychedelics – in particular LSD –  reduce the inhibiting properties of the default mode network. You can think of it like the ego: A network that senses impulses coming from the sensory system. Normally, instead of getting the pure sensation, you are getting a reduced version. But after taking psychedelics, what we have seen is that there’s a much greater flow of blood and connectivity between the visual center of the brain and other centers. That makes the visual experience much more informed by our personal memories, or images from the past and hence much more intensive.
Psychedelics are known for being another way of seeing the world, of creating a different reality…
That comes from removing the normal, day-to-day repression. Due to conditioning, we filter out most of what we could see. That filtering system – which happens through the default mode network – is reduced or even eliminated when we take psychedelics. Psychedelics offer us life in high-definition.
Following that logic, it would mean that the bright colors one sees when taking LSD are actually real, but we don’t perceive them in everyday life…
Exactly. We sensor them down to manageable components. Seeing a flower after taking psychedelics will make you see it breathing and living – it’s so beautiful you can hardly believe it. Whereas in daily life, you would just go “That’s a lovely rose and very pretty.” When the visual centers have unrestricted connectivity to other parts of the brain, the results are richer – both in memory and in emotion.
That reminds me of something Aldous Huxley once wrote: That chemical substances can make us see colors and beauty that – as he put it – transports us to our antipodes.
It’s a beauty felt with a kind of emotional context. And that is what is wonderful about psychedelics: They give fresh emotion to the experience of seeing, hearing, or thinking. It is fresher, brighter, and more filled with richness from memory and possibility. Ordinary life is just a reduced version of that.
Is that why they are so widely used for art?
Absolutely. To get the greatest enjoyment of beauty, say at a historical site in Egypt, or when admiring a beautiful monument, you should really expand your awareness to feel it in a deeper, more vibrant way. Psychedelics are wonderful enhancers of the normal senses, leading to much richer experiences. Watching the pyramids on LSD is not something you forget.
By now, when we see a certain pattern or painting that includes bright color combinations, we say “oh, this looks psychedelic”. It has already become a label for something that cannot be grasped within the normal ways we describe art.
Right, it seems to be more poignant. Some prehistoric cave art in France, which is 40.000 years old, has the same intensity of the line and energy in the depiction of animals that a drawing by Picasso has. The people drawing it were clearly intensely into it – and probably on a psychedelic substance when drawing.

“LSD opens up reality without censorship”

Why do artists become so engaged when taking these substances?
First of all, there’s added intensity, which makes the art more exciting and also, there’s a tendency towards synesthesia. Another finding in our research is that the different networks in the brain are normally very integrated within themselves. They don’t communicate much with one another. Whereas LSD leads to much more communication between different networks, even between some that don’t normally communicate with one another. Lines of communication get opened up, and it makes the whole brain much more of a unit.
In the perception of many people, the things you see under the influence of drugs – especially psychedelics – aren’t real. They are hallucinations. Whereas you say that what we see is an augmented reality…
…a richer reality! One without the censorship. You can think of hallucination as seeing with eyes closed. And we have also done the research on that: We compared the experience of people with their eyes closed on LSD with those of others on placebo. The impression in the visual center of the people on LSD is as strong as those of a person seeing something with their eyes open. They are seeing with eyes closed. So hallucination stems from the memory or emotion, and the imprint is as strong as other peoples’ reality. I am sure we will discover a lot more in this field, when we further explore the breakdown of the Default Mode Network that I have mentioned, which causes the normal censorship.
We know all these art pieces that have been created under the influence of certain substances. And I feel that society very much cherishes not just those works but the overall hippie era. Yet using these drugs is still widely frowned upon.
Absolutely. The use of psychedelics became taboo in the late 1960s. But I think the taboo is slowly lifting; with the realization of how incredibly valuable these substances can be in a therapeutic context. They can be a treatment for many intractable modern illnesses – like in depression, anxiety, or addiction. Or, indeed, against chronic headaches. Society has trouble with a whole lot of illnesses: 20% of people suffering from depression never start treatment. In studies of our synthesized therapy, the success rate of treating people suffering from depression has been very high, much higher than normal treatment – a success rate of 67 per cent in the pilot study.
Does this work because you give the patient access to insights or memories they didn’t previously have? A clinically depressed person struggles to get that access in therapy, since there is a kind of blockage. Psychedelics may be able to lift that – but isn’t there a danger of them opening a gate to something harmful?
With our depression study, we have taken the greatest care: People have been carefully screened before doing the research, to determine that they are suitable. And then there are two psychiatrists present. The person is looked after with great care, and under those circumstances, the danger is minimal. People can have a bit of a panic attack, but that is much more dangerous if they take psychedelics in uncontrolled, unsuitable circumstances. Which is not what we’re abdicating at all.
Isn´t it hard to precisely dosage LSD? How do you know how much to give to someone?
Absolutely. That’s the problem of the criminalization of a legal market. Ideally, people should be able to access psychedelics in therapy with trained therapists, and we should’t really be depriving patients of these forms of treatment if the research is showing a high rate of success. But we’re obviously in the early days of it, and although we’re heading into the right direction, we have to move forward with great care. The LSD study is testing safety of different dosages. It can teach us an awful lot about how the substance can be used to treat different disorders. Our studies suggest that it can efficiently reduce the function of the Default Mode Network…
…The intra-networks of different brain regions
In depression, the default mode network is hyperactive, and people feel like they are stuck in a circuit. Psychedelics break that network so that a new kind of setting, which can shake the chronically negative thought pattern and make a more positive one replace it. It seems as though these substances aid healing by getting to a deeper access of the personality. Normally, trauma and unhappiness are protected by repressive networks, by the Default Mode Network – which is another way of saying ego. But with psychedelics, the censorship breaks down. You get full access to your inner self.

“LSD is not a party drug”

So far, we have only talked about psychedelics as a therapeutic drug – you are certainly pioneers in that field. But to most people around the globe, they are still a recreational drug.
I’m afraid that has come from 40 years of inaccurate press coverage and misuse. LSD is not a party drug.  Historically, these substances have always been used as part of a religious, spiritual healing ceremony. With rather tight control and the support of the group – which seemed like a very sensible way of taking them.
Such as Ayahuasca?
Exactly, the famous brew from the Amazon. There, they have a way of taking it that makes the people feel like they are in a protective environment. Where they can open up to their inner travels, which can help people overcome trauma. And we saw the same with our study on depression. People who had been depressed for 18 years or more suddenly felt that they were, for the first time, able to enjoy themselves.
But were there lasting effects? In depression, the use of therapeutic methods might just be a short-term fix…
Remarkably, from our research, after a week it was rated as a 76% rate of overcoming depression. And after three months, the rate was 42%. Which is a lot more than ordinary forms of treatment. Not only is the effect felt immediately, it also leaves an afterglow of changed perception.
How many sessions do your patients have?
In this little part of the research, there were two sessions, first with a small dose, the second one with a medium dose. And people who have a deep experience of ego loss and spiritual awakening are very often the people who have optimized the benefits of overcoming depression or addiction, or whatever they were trying to cure.
Would you say that since your research center focusses exclusively on psychedelics, that other drugs, such as MDMA, have the same potential?
We actually also do research with MDMA and cannabis. And I would say they all have the same potential, but in a different way. MDMA has a special kind of flooding the brain with empathy, because it stimulates oxytocin. The effect is akin to what a mother experiences when she has a child, or when you are in love. So it makes the person love themselves – and the therapist, and everyone else.
…which aids therapy.
It makes it easier to face a terrible memory within themselves. That’s very good for post-traumatic stress disorder. But it doesn’t include the psychedelic experience of overcoming of the ego that I just mentioned. They have slightly different qualities, but can all be beneficial. Researching these and other substances, which we have only become able to recently, is opening up entirely new avenues of treatment – and can be very healing for society. We can treat illness, expand awareness depth of hearing and vision, and further understanding.
You have personally experimented with trepanation, where a hole is drilled into the skull to expand the consciousness. You have said that this was an experience even more intense, the next step from using psychedelic.
I didn’t really say it was the next step, but as far as I know – and we haven’t done enough research – it gives back to the brain the full experience of the heartbeat by removing a piece of bone. The heartbeat can express itself fully within the brain. It improves the circulation of cerebral spinal fluids, which wash out the toxins that can build up and produce the plaque underlying Alzheimers. But the experience is much less intense than taking LSD for example. Just like psychedelics, trepanation is an old healing technique.
So it is about returning to a prior knowledge that our society has forgotten, or criminalized?
Even breathing can get people very high. Meditation can have the same effect as a psychedelic. There are different ways of manipulating the brain in order to attain a less rigid state in our daily consciousness. And it can be healthy for the individual to experience these different states. There are serious conditions that need all the help they can get. Sadly, the altering of consciousness has a bad name – but is a part of the human experience and something we should learn more about.
More on Amanda’s work at: http://beckleyfoundation.org/

Brain burning with color

Ukrainian painter Kazimir Malevich considered the art of painting shackled by natural forms and colors. In 1918, he wrote down why it needed to be set free – a manifest equally fascinating and crazy.

Kazimir Malevich was born in Ukraine in 1878. He is credited as the founder of the Suprematism, an avant-garde art movement that developed out of futurism. Malevich shocked the art world with his paintings, which often featured little more than simple geometric forms, taken to the extreme in an iconic painting called “Black Square”, which showed (you guessed it) just a simple black square on a white background. It is often referred to as the “zero point of painting”, the pinnacle of abstraction, even though Malevich would later paint a white square onto a white canvas. He was a man on a mission.
Malevich.black-square
Such avant-gardistic art has a tendency to seem over the top, but remember that Malevich’s work is a product of its time, of an age when modern art and abstract painting just emerged. The painter didn’t just start painting rectangles but arrived there through further and further reduction. An earlier piece of his was called “Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions” and it showed just simple red parallelogram. It’s safe to assume that the peasant woman was wearing red. Red_Square._Visual_Realism_of_a_Peasant_Woman_in_Two_Dimensions
Malevich would soon entirely depart from reality, and his later works no longer represented anything. Art historian John Milner once wrote that in Malevich’s paintings, “proportion and perspective were manipulated apparently without reference to imagery”. Malevich wanted nothing to do with our assumptions.
We know this not because Malevich took abstraction to such heights, but because he wrote about it. At the 10th State Exhibition in 1919, a joint event of Russian avant-garde artists, Malevich sold a small brochure that spelled out his philosophy. Back then, the “Petrograd Bulletin” mentioned it in its review of the fair, nonchalantly describing its scope: “On sale at the exhibition is a small brochure by K. Malevich – “From Cubism to Suprematism” – intelligently written, in which the author sets out to shed light on the essence of futurist theories and desires. While he writes on the destruction of all that exists, he remains logical in his own way and comprehensible.”
But Malevich’s writing, quoted below, is itself avant-gardistic: a text that starts out sensibly but slowly veers off into the abstract, the emotional. Just like he does in his paintings, the artist doesn’t communicate on a factual, but increasingly on an emotional pane, making his point with feverish urgency, and turning his pamphlet into a rallying cry to leave behind colors and forms, and to start anew.
What they mean with “the destruction of all that exists” you ask? Well, Malevich had nothing but scorn for the art of yore:

And however many moonlit landscapes the artist paints, however many grazing cows and pretty sunsets, they will remain the same dear little cows and sunsets. Only in a much worse form. And in fact, whether an artist is a genius or not is determined by the number of cows he paints.
The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature.

Just as we fret over smartphones and VR today, wondering what they do to our appreciation of the reality around us, Malevich saw planes, trains, and automobiles blurring our ability to see. Art, he argued, had to keep pace. And painters had to stop it with the nudes already:

(…) your lack of understanding is quite natural. Can a man who always goes about in a cabriolet really understand the experiences and impressions of one who travels in an express or flies through the air? The academy is a moldy vault in which art is being flagellated. Gigantic wars, great inventions, conquest of the air, speed of travel, telephones, telegraphs, dreadnoughts are the realm of selectivity. But our young artists paint Neros and half-naked Roman warriors.

The new life of iron and the machine, the roar of motorcars, the brilliance of electric lights, the growling of propellers, have awakened the soul, which was suffocating in the catacombs of old reason and has emerged at the intersection of the paths of heaven and earth.

Color, he thinks, has been enslaved by common sense:

Malevich, looking pretty content – even though you have terrible taste.

Malevich, looking pretty content – even though you have terrible taste.

Being a painter, I ought to say why people’s faces are painted green and red in pictures. Painting is paint and color; it lies within our organism. Its outbursts and great and demanding.
My devours system is colored by them.
My brain burns with their color.
But color was oppressed by common sense, it was enslaved by it. And the spirit of color weakened and died out.
But when it conquered common sense, then its colors flowed onto the repellent form of real things.

And the use of color starts being an almost political struggle rather than just an artistic expression:

In achieving this new beauty, or simply energy, we have freed ourselves from the impression of the object’s wholeness. The millstone around the neck of painting is beginning to crack.

Unfortunately, people hadn’t yet learned to appreciate this vision. In Malevich’s eyes, they were stuck hopelessly in the past. And, dear, did he hate them:

This is why it is strange to look at a red or black painted surface. This is why people snigger and spit at the exhibitions of new trends.
Art and its new aim have always been a spittoon. But cats get used to one place, and it is difficult to house-train them to a new one. For such people, art is quite unnecessary, as long as their grandmothers and favorite little nooks of lilac groves are painted.

Let’s remember, for a second, that his contemporaries thought Malevich “logical in his own way”. With this manifesto, he took the sledgehammer to their taste, stood on the rubble with a pumping fist and yelled. This man was angry. And he poured all his anger into his art, his words, and his own sense of grandiosity.

You all wish to see pieces of living nature on the hooks of your walls. Just as Nero admired the torn bodies of people and animals from the zoological garden.
I say to all: Abandon love, abandon aestheticism, abandon the baggage of wisdom, for in the new culture, your wisdom is ridiculous and insignificant.
I have untied the knots of wisdom and liberated the consciousness of color!
Hurry up and shed the hardened skin of centuries, so that you can catch up with us more easily.
I have overcome the impossible and made gulfs with my breath. You are caught in the nets of the horizon, like fish!
We, suprematists, throw open the way to you.
Hurry!
For tomorrow you will not recognize us.

Landscape, in C sharp minor

This is how you turn music into color.

“Model required.” Casting call.
In they come, one by one, heels clicking thunder on the gallery’s hardwood floors. The oak is centuries too old for this. The eleven o’clock sun rains in through the glass panes, flooding the space with light, making love midway to the Beethoven streaming through the speakers in the corner. What color is a sonata anyway?
An empty frame, in silver and gold, waits obediently against the white wall.
The first model climbs in, a well behaved hue of blue. She disrobes timidly, looks down. A study in neoclassicism; line over color, a sublimation of the form. The model as an ideal; an aria in monochrome.
I pull out my brush.
“Is yellow warm or cold?”
The model does not talk back. She does not look up. I ask again anyway, and dip the brush in paint. Under my strokes, her pliant fingers, elbows, bare shoulders comply. She evaporates before my eyes, in a muted green haze. I paint a “Still life in aqua.”
But it is not a sonata, so I help her out of the frame. Wafts of green trail behind her as the heels click apologetically out of the room.
The second model hurricanes in, a red so concrete it turns the air opaque. Her angular heels poke holes in the canvas as she climbs into the frame. A study in abstraction; the model as a structure. Order and discipline, uncorrupted design, to which my paintbrush wrecks havoc. A revolution in the frame.
“Is yellow warm or cold?”
The model does not, cannot hear me. The warring colors are so loud, even Beethoven is muted. With shards of neon orange, my brush stokes the flames. I paint a “Portraiture of fragments.”
Still, not a sonata, so I shake my head. She marches out, defiant. The air behind her clears. I hear the floorboards creak again.
What color is a sonata? Is yellow warm or cold?
The third model walks in, and suddenly, the music explodes.
She is the three primaries. The blonde, brunette, and the redhead. The red, yellow, and blue. The model as a possibility, the multiplicity of the self. Vulnerable and provocative, sensuous and naïve. She climbs into the frame, and stares. At me.
I burst into pigments like ripe summer fruit; infinite colors and notes spill out. Soaking the canvas, overflowing the frame, dripping onto the parched oak. Staining the walls, the music, the light. The whole gallery becomes a self-portrait.
There are buckets of paint everywhere, on every surface, in every shade, and I use them all. The sonata is every color I want it to be. Warm and cold and vibrant and bright, it rolls off my tongue, my lips, my chin like syrupy elderflower.
The music rises frantically to a final trill. I paint a “Landscape, in C sharp minor.”

The Banality of Color

Why looking at the past in color is such an uncanny experience.

We tend to think of the past in black and white. Since color photography only became mainstream in the 1970s, anything from before is usually pictured in monochrome. Flip through an old photo album and you see smiling grey faces, people in grey clothes, driving grey cars. But prior to the advent of color film, inventors had long toyed with technologies to capture the world in all the colors they saw it in.
As far back as in 1903, the (very aptly-called) Lumière brothers in France patented a process for color pictures: It was called Autochrome and relied on glass plates containing particles of colored potato starch, which absorbed the spectrum of the light they were exposed to. It’s about as complicated as it sounds, and required such long exposures that subjects had to sit still for several minutes, literally waiting for light to filter through potatoes.
By today’s standard the technology and its results were primitive: Colors in Autochrome images are inaccurate and the motifs all fuzzy, giving the photos a dream-like quality. But it all nevertheless represented a stunning achievement: With Autochrome, colors were no longer stripped from a photo. And with that, every photographer using it captured a slightly more accurate picture of the past.

Silver Lake. An Autochrome from the George Eastman House Collection.

Silver Lake. An Autochrome from the George Eastman House Collection.

In fact, a surprising amount of the early 20th century was documented in color. Each continent had slightly different technology, so you can see colored pictures of the Russian empire’s final years, white orthodox churches standing before pale blue skies. You can see World War One, photos of the trenches full of soldiers, with their uniforms awash in color. And if you’re so inclined, you can even look into the piercing blue eyes of Adolf Hitler.

View of the monastery from Svetlitsa, a photo by Sergeĭ Prokudin-Gorskiĭ

View of the monastery from Svetlitsa, a photo by Sergeĭ Prokudin-Gorskiĭ

7300960484_b98312f664_zThat is because Autochrome paved the way for other methods of capturing color: In 1930, the German company Agfa released their first commercial color film, which eschewed the potatoes but relied on a similar principle: For a product called Agfacolor, the engineers used cartridges of film, which they coated with a fine layer of color particles. In 1935, hot on it heels, Kodak then developed the iconic Kodachrome film, which finally nailed color reproduction. In those years leading up to the Second World War, a wholly different arms race was taking place, as Americans and Europeans each developed color films.
Exposure was suddenly quick, and film was of course much more portable than glass plates. And while it would take years for the technology to go mainstream, the times began being documented in color.

Portrait of Dottie Reid, taken in 1946 in New York with Kodachrome. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Portrait of Dottie Reid, taken in 1946 in New York with Kodachrome. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The past is strangely alive in these images. Maybe that is because black and white, by sheer ontology, gives images of the past a surreal quality: What monochrome misses in color, it makes up in contrast.
Or maybe it is much simpler: Real life simply isn’t in black and white. And seeing the past stripped off its colors makes it seem less lifelike, and by extension much further removed.
If you flip that equation around, you understand why color pictures of the past are so captivating. Not only do they show a lifelike reality, they also show that it isn’t so distant after all.
The National Archives of Norway — of all places — have images of Berlin from the 1930s, of the very same city where I am writing this. Back then, blue-eyed Hitler was in power, and the city was draped in Swastika flags – so many of them, it seems absurd.
But of course it isn’t. These images show the past as it actually took place. And that makes looking at them very sobering. Yes, these images show a frightening symbolism, the heyday of a terrible ideology that would plunge Europe into war. But more surprising is that they show a certain banality.
On these color pictures, the past is no longer a distant memory or a scary episode from the history books. Not even a historic outlier. The color in this pictures shows how real it all was, how much closer to our present time – and how stupefyingly normal.
Today, black and white photography has, in the words of Wikipedia, “been relegated to niche markets such as art photography”. We use black and white for a certain look, employ it for artistic purposes rather than accuracy. And because most photos of the past are in black and white, I think we see it as something it wasn’t: A time as unreal and dream-like as those early Autochromes.
Color not only adds missing information, it actually adds context. And it exposes any photo of the past for what it really represents: A document of time not all that different from our own. A world in which the events that took place, the entire unthinkable history of the 20th century, was as normal as the reality we capture with our phones today.