In our 24/7 video and internet world, we have come to associate color with immediacy. The content of the images may be irrelevant or insignificant but their colors nevertheless signify a sense of NOW. Indeed the boundary between past and present– photographically at least– is the use of color. The distancing of black and white photography from the present is what gives “pastness” its seemingly frozen character. But in recent years, caches of precociously vivid color photographs have come to light. There is a luminous, surprising quality about them– letting us into a world that still seems to be unfolding, that still seems unfinished and alive.
Is this a temporary sensation? Is it merely the novelty of seeing color in place of black and white that tricks us into believing that the image is more lifelike and alive? It’s uncanny that even photos from less iconic and earthshaking settings possess the same character– a kind of luminosity that seems to have the uncanny ability to resurrect long-dead people and the beauty of their world.
Ruth Ellen Gruber drew my attention to this stunning series of photographs of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russia taken by the Czarist court photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944). Using an ingenious system of red, green, and blue filters, he captured the exotic, the mundane, the familiar, and the novel throughout the empire of Nicholas II. The collection is now in the U.S. Library of Congress. Yet, in looking at the pictures of villages, government officials, and colorful ethnic characters and costumes, it is as if the pre-Revolutionary realities of Russia are, for a moment, re-lived in our gaze.
And it’s not only about exotic locales and distant landscapes. Margie Purser has pointed out a series of arresting images commissioned by the US Farm Security Administration from across the country in the depression years. There’s the hustle-and-bustle of downtown storefronts, country fair girlie show performers, the handmade pastimes of the era’s children, the tragedy of a farm auction, and the unquestioned propriety of men doffing their hats before saying grace.
Here too there is something almost tangible about the volumes the colors create– the browns and purples of the peoples’ clothing and the brown/green of the grass. It’s not that these color photos are in anyway realistic, or even as vivid as the pigments of paintings from far earlier times.
It’s the fact that they SHOULD be black and white and that makes all the difference. They make us pause for a moment and question our conditioned perceptions that everything old should be monochrome.
The social historian’s ideal of understanding a lived present– as if we did not know the subsequent outcomes– seems to to be embodied in these rare colored images from the past. Just look at these views of London in 1927, when it seemed that the future was wide open and anything was possible.
The colors suggest that living eyes saw those colors as experience, not frozen history.