The Cult of Richard Dawkins
End of an Era

World War I in Color

I often think about how photography conditions and limits our imagination of times after it was invented but earlier than we can personally remember. I think it's difficult for most of us to see events of roughly 1860 to 1950 in color, real color, exactly as we see it now. Or at least we have to make a bit of an effort to do so. And we tend to see the 1950s and '60s in color that's somewhat washed out, faded in the way that color photographs fade. This sometimes even works on me, and I have perfectly clear memories of the 1950s.

Movies often reinforce this, even contemporary ones, by filming earlier times in black and white, or in color that's tweaked to have a sepia tone, to suggest the early 20th century, or touched with greenish-brown to suggest the 1940s, or faded and slightly blurry to suggest the 1950s. I always silently congratulate filmmakers who resist that urge. And how hard is it to get out of one's mind the notion that in the 1910s and '20s not only was everything monochrome, but all movement was unnaturally quick and jerky?

In the last few years a number of early color photos have been published on the web, and for me they do a lot to break that monochrome spell, especially for times when I didn't even realize color photography existed. There's a new book out, The First World War in Colour, which, on the basis of the samples at that link, is almost startling.

And perhaps you've already seen this set from the 1930s, which appeared online a few years ago. There's lots more out there, if you look for it. Somewhere there is even a batch from, if I remember correctly, rural Russia in the late 19th or very early 20th century.




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It's amazing how the uniforms of 1914 are basically 19th-century, but those of 1916 would not look out of place in 1940.

There's a mention somewhere in the text on that series that at some point the military realized that, for instance, bright red hats made good targets. I guess things got more drab then. I don't know why that would not have been true in other wars in the preceding half-century or so. Improvements in firearms, maybe?

Before the end of the 19th century there was so much smoke and movement on battlefields, and firearms had such short ranges, that bright colours weren't an issue.

The Library of Congress website includes a collection of astonishing color photographs taken in imperial Russia.

Wow, those are something. Only had time to take a quick look but will go back another time.

That makes sense, Paul.

Its even surprising to me that the sky is so blue!

My grandfather fought in WWI, so it should not be....

Mine, too. Or at least he went overseas. And my father and his brothers in WWII, of which my images are often similarly misleadlingly tinted. Actually it rather irritates me that I'm so subject to this, but I'm not sure whether to blame myself or photography. I guess I can justly be annoyed at the filmmakers who deliberately choose to do this.

Though I shouldn't be surprised at my vulnerability: I noticed long ago that album art and book covers have a big influence on me, especially the former.

Just looked at a trailer for The Sting to test your theory. Yup, the colors are washed-out. And this is a restored-digitized version, not a faded copy from the original master.

That's interesting, because The Sting was one of the movies I was thinking of, but I couldn't remember whether it was done that way or not. I only saw it once and I think that was on tv, or maybe a VHS recording.

The BBC show that's been mentioned here a couple of times lately, The Bletchley Circle, does it in a big way. It's set in the 1950s and has not so much the faded Kodacolor look that they often use for the '50s, but a generally toned-down quality, as if to say "See what a drab time that was." I think there's a touch of that in Endeavour, too, though it's not as pronounced.

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