And if a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up. I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible. – Richard Avedon – 1970
[one_half padding=”4px 10px 0 4px”]Color has been the Rodney Dangerfield of photography, struggling for respect from the moment the folks at Eastman Kodak labs tried selling it to the general public. Before then, it was considered highly experimental, one of those things that couldn’t be trusted, was hardly useful in a practical manner, and hardly worth the time it took to make it a reality. Black and white was where it was at, especially if one wanted a crisp, clear photograph. Anything else was just wasting your time.
I should probably clarify that when we talk about color photography now, more often than not what we are referencing is color process photography similar to what is achieved using negative film processing during the 1940s. Prior to that, there were plenty of experiments going all the way back to 1861 when physicist James Clerk Maxwell achieved a form of color reproduction by shooting three black and white frames using a different color filter, red, green, and blue, for each one and then superimposing them together. Through World War II, that stacking method dramatically improved but still lacked accuracy and refinement necessary to be effective on a large commercial scale.
When color negative film was first developed, the critical issue was the relationship between the negative and the dark room solution known as fixer. It was up to the fixer to accurately translate the negative and produce the correct color onto the specially coated paper. Results varied dramatically from one fixer to the next and even from one person to the next. Color labs began popping up with their reputations lying on their ability to accurately reproduce color negatives. Color reversal film, or slide film, finally came along in the 50s with dramatically more accurate results, but to achieve a print they still had to be translated back to negatives where the process was still less than accurate.[/one_half]
[one_half_last padding=”4px 4px 0 10px”]Given all the problems surrounding color film, it really is no wonder that the people who made their living in photography wanted little to do with the mess and uncertainty. Even museums and galleries refused to show color photography any respect for the longest time. The first gallery showing of color photography didn’t occur until 1976! When the Museum of Modern Art in New York showed William Egleston’s Guide response was still based more in curiosity with the medium than acknowledging it as a medium that had finally come into its own. For the best photo possible, photographers still turned to black and white film.
Digital photography has actually helped change color’s reputation. Unlike film, digital cameras capture a color image right from the start, even if the camera has a black and white setting. Digital imagery removes some of the guess-work, so images are more likely to come out looking closer to what our minds remember our eyes saw. Digital imagery using natural light may be the most accurate translation of color achieved on a regular basis to date. While everything can be manipulated and corrected during post processing, natural light and color photography are the best buddies that have been looking for years to find each other.
Yes, there are still plenty of challenges, not the least of which is the fact that most computer monitors are not accurately balanced to produce true colors. Yet, can you imagine how incredibly boring today’s picture would be if it were in black and white? Color conveys emotion, warmth, and contrast. We look at the picture and can wonder why in the world I would put powdered cheese dust over half the model’s body, and be intrigued by the effect it has on our eyes. In natural light, color photography finally begins earning the respect it deserves.[/one_half_last]