When Color Came Into the World

"Mom, when did color come into the world?"

Yeah, I said it.  I must have been 5 or 6 and was panning through a World Book encyclopedia, noticing how the photos from the 1920's were all in black and white, and there were photos from the 1950's in color.  Surely there must have been a reason why there were no color photos of the 1920's, and that surely must have been that the world itself was in mere shades of grey.

While I can recall asking this question, my memory of her response is a bit grey, aside from some puzzled looks and asking me to clarify what I meant by my inquiry.

My recollection of this humorous aside reveals to me that for as long as I can remember, I've found interest in photos from eras that existed prior to my own existence.  What, to the many who lived through the era, was mere commonplace, was to me, an enchanting land vastly different from that of my own, a world that was unreachable and irreplaceable.  To this day, I still marvel to look at a colorful scene of streamlined vehicles running down bustling streets filled with thriving merchants whose colorful neon signs beckon customers, again: today unreachable and irreplaceable.

Seeing these scenes in color only adds to both the realism and the fantasy alike to me, and the further removed in years these scenes are from the present day, the more different and fascinating the images are likely to be.  However, there is only so far back one can go before the color "begins to vanish" from  these landscapes. And I still have the yearning to know when color came into the world.  

Color photography began to develop (no pun intended) prior to 1850.   However, the early decades of the craft were largely experimental by nature.  By 1903, the Autochrome process was patented, finally putting forth a viable commercial approach to color photography.  However, the look of many Autochromes can tend to resemble hand tinted black and white photos, likely due to the additive nature of color to the process.  Other "magic lantern" slides as well as Dufaycolor processes also appear similar in nature.  

And then came Kodachrome.  The trademark "Kodachrome" for a Kodak color transparency film, had been in use since 1914, initially as a 2 color process that was later abandoned.  After years of research, the first version of the Kodachrome that became a staple of slide shows in the decades to come, was released as a movie film in 1935 and for still photography in 1936. It took still 3-4 more years before the film achieved the archival stability it has become known for.  As a result, Kodachrome slides taken in the more embryonic days of the film are far more prone to fading than those taken just a couple years later.  

Below are three very early Kodachromes that tend to show the film's progression into the staple it would become.  In short, to paraphrase my childhood remark, "they show color coming into the world:"

A December 1938 shot taken of the Rony Plaza near 22nd Street in Miami Beach shows a pretty subdued color palette.  Even this required significant tweaking in Photoshop to achieve, while the image required a lot of use of the cloning tool to remove dust.  Still, the results were worth it, as the smaller hotels here have since been replaced by more mammoth structures on this highly desirable property.  Everything in this photo has pretty much vanished. 

A 1939 shot taken at the International Exposition in San Francisco CA shows a much more robust color palette compared to the 1938 shot, though there still is a bit of a "pastel" nature to the photo in some of the color depiction, particularly in the sign for the California Nursery Company.  

A shot taken at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD on May 3, 1940 (the same date as the photo for the illustration atop this page) shows an absolutely astonishing degree of color depth that looks like it could have been taken this year!  There is no mistaking that by this point, true to life color had arrived in the photographic world! 

Kodachromes taken in 1936 and 1937 are quite scarce, and while it is possible to find some original color slides from the 1938 to 1940 period without significant difficulty, photos taken between 1942 and 1945 also tend to be quite rare on account of involvement in World War II.  I tend to find these images from the earliest days of color photography to be particularly fascinating to have, as with many of them, the person holding them may actually have the earliest color photo ever taken of a particular scene, or at the very least, the oldest color photo of that particular scene in existence! 

Footnote: Just as color had may its way into the world of the still photographic image, it also made a giant splash into the motion picture world as well with the Technicolor release of 1939's "The Wizard of Oz."  Just as with Kodachrome, the MGM film took a number of years to really take hold.  Similar to still photography, motion pictures had dabbled with experiments in color, but prior to this time, none were quite as lavish as The Wizard.  In time, a number of big blockbuster hits would be produced in full color, and by the advent of the 1960's, black and white films had lost dominance to color productions.