Saturday, August 13, 2005

Seeing the World in Color

In a strip of Calvin and Hobbes from the 1980s, Calvin asks his father, “Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have color film back then?” His father replies, “Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs ARE in color. It’s just the WORLD was black and white back then. … The world didn’t turn color until sometime in the 1920s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.” Calvin responds, “That’s really weird.”

For many of us, history is seen in terms of black and white-- and if it’s not in color, it might as well be ancient. In my Mass Media class, the moans would start as soon my students realized a film might not be in color—even if it were a recent production. Black and white is the world their great-grandparents live in.

It’s always a surprise to find that color, whether by tinting or the use of actual color film, has recorded more of the last two centuries than we think. Would you believe that the picture at left shows French troops in World War I? It does... and it's a real photograph.

But there are earlier examples. Note the pre-Civil War portrait of a boy and his sister, where she wears a beautifully tinted pink dress. Young America. The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes talks about the hand-tinting coloring of these early monochromatic images. An 1855 house with white picket fence and trees shows an early landscape. A pensive 1850s girl leans against a chair with a blue blanket.

Watching The War in Color on PBS the other afternoon, I realized that I don’t remember seeing a lot of color footage of World War II, even though it was available. And I’ve seen even less of World War I. I was delighted to find two great websites that dealt with full color images from those periods.

The Heritage of the Great War: Over 250 hand-tinted post cards or actual color photographs presented on this copyright free site.

World War 2 Pictures in Color: An extensive collection of images from U.S., German, Russian, Japanese, British and Italian sources.

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