Colour in photography

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This topic contains 1 reply, has 1 voice, and was last updated by  Ian McNab 1 year, 10 months ago.

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    Ian McNab

    There was a time when only black and white photographs counted as serious photography that might be considered as art. Colour was only used by amateurs or by commercial photographers in advertising or fashion. And amateurs were only really interested in colour because it mimicked reality, not because of any artistic or aesthetic contribution that colour made to pictures.

    Colour started to be more widely used in photography from the 1930s onwards, but because of the expense and difficulty of the process it was mainly confined to high-end publishing — especially advertising and fashion in glossy magazines. Colour only began to be accepted in art photography during the 1970s, largely due to John Szarkowski, Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who staged the watershed exhibition, “William Eggleston’s Guide” in 1976. Eggleston’s show wasn’t the first – Ernst Haas had had a colour exhibition at MoMA ten years earlier; and the 1970s saw other photographers working in colour, most notably Stephen Shaw, Joel Meyerowitz and Harry Callahan; but the Eggleston show at MoMA has been taken as the point when colour photography was accepted by the art establishment.

    But much club photography, and, indeed, many colour photographs generally, are still “black and white photographs that happen to be in colour”. In other words, the colour is there because modern cameras record colour, and the things that cameras get pointed at happen to be coloured. This is not like colour in painting, which is planned, arranged and judged according to the internal sense of harmony it creates in the picture (and may not necessarily bear much relation to how similar it is to real objects). Colour in painting is there because of the job it is doing in the picture; but colour in colour photographs is often just there, without doing any particular ‘picture job’ at all.

    So it’s a rare photographer who is able to use colour compositionally, able to make photographs that work essentially because they are in colour. One such notable photographer is Saul Leiter, who uses colour as a painter does, and is often not much concerned that we even recognise what the objects photographed actually are.


    Saul Leiter, “Purple Umbrella” (1950s)


    Ian McNab

    Today’s ‘L’Oeil de la Photographie’ has an article about Leiter and his interest in Japanese woodblock prints, as well as a large gallery of his work – mainly from the mid 1950s – that will be on show at the forthcoming Tokyo retrospective of Leiter’s work. (Click on a picture at the top of the article to open the gallery view, then use the arrow keys or a swipe to move forward and back.)

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