True Colors

True Colors

Photography’s exciting evolution from shades of gray to a rainbow of color isn’t without a few dark clouds. Use this historical guide to understand the developments in your own family albums.

I grew up in a colored world, but my parents didn’t. Of course, their childhood homes weren’t actually like Kansas before the tornado landed Dorothy and Toto in the Land of Oz, but pictures make it look that way. They show a world that was black-and-white or sepia.
Then photography stepped into a world of color—first for professional photographers in 1936, then for family shutterbugs in the 1940s. Now color film is the everyday choice of most consumers, and black-and-white is reserved primarily for artistic effect. But even though taking pictures is a national obsession, few of us know the complicated roots of the many-hued pictures that grace walls and mantels in our homes—or the deterioration issues unique to color film. We’ll explain it as we follow photography’s winding yellow brick road from grayscale to color.

Shady work

The transition from all black-and-white photography to color took close to a century. Photographic pioneers Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Fox Talbot electrified the world in 1839 with their inventions, respectively, of shiny metal daguerreotypes and paper Talbotypes—but after centuries of exposure to colorful painted portraits, the public was a bit disappointed in black-and-white pictures. Critics and others wondered where the natural color was. The race to invent color images was on.
Early photographers began to use artistic techniques to add detail and color to prints and images on glass or metal plates—blue eyes, pink cheeks and gold jewelry. In portraits of men, photographers colored their collars and shirts white. Hand-coloring evolved from simple charcoal outlining to the use of oil and watercolor paints, crayons, colored powders and gold leaf. Many studios employed artists to apply color and seal prints with gum arabic or varnish.
Some became so proficient that they blurred the line between photo and artistic creation. Charcoal-enhanced images, for example, cause contemporary genealogists to wonder, “Is it a photograph or a painting?” It’s actually a little of both. Some examples are so colorized that they’re more painting than picture. I’ve seen a black-and-white print with a checklist on the back indicating what colors to use on each feature from eye color to fabric. Unfortunately, the finished colored portrait is lost.

Off-color remarks

Daguerre and other photographical innovators tried to invent a color process using various chemicals, but they were largely unsuccessful in creating permanent color images. In 1847, Frenchman Claude Felix Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor used silver chloride to create a color image, then he varnished it for preservation. Unfortunately, the technique was too unstable to be commercially viable.
In 1850, Levi Hill, a Baptist minister from New York, announced that he’d found a way to reproduce natural color in daguerreotypes—but he refused to reveal his methods. He called his process Heliochromy, and the resulting plates were hillotypes. Many contemporary photographers called him a fraud. They were only partly right: In 2007, researchers for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History found that Hill had indeed been able to capture blue and red hues, but that he’d added other colors by hand. You can view one at <>.
A little more than a decade later, in the 1860s, James Clerk Maxwell was experimenting with color imaging in Scotland and developed the theory that all colors are based on three primary colors: red, green and blue. He demonstrated his theory by combining three photographic plates of a tartan ribbon, each taken through a colored filter, into one color image. Louis Ducos du Hauron of France used this “color additive” theory in 1877 to produce a color print, Landscape of Southern France (see it at <>).
Experimentation with full-color images continued throughout the 19th century. American Frederic E. Ives of Philadelphia created an elaborate process that produced three glass slides of an image, each “filtered” through a red, green or blue screen. To combine the slides into a full-color image, they had to be viewed through tinted glass in a device Ives patented in 1892; the American Journal of Photography called it a “magic lantern.” Ives tried to market his heliochromoscope (also called a kromoscope), needed to view the images at home, but costs and the complicated technology conspired to create a commercial failure.
Next time you sit down to dinner, look at your potato. This root vegetable was a key component in the first permanent color images. In 1904, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière of Lyon, France, used tiny grains of potato starch dyed red-orange, green and violet to create colored glass slides, which acted as color filters. Lampblack filled spaces between the grains, and shellac preserved the plate. Finally, a coat of silver halide emulsion was spread on top.
After more than 60 years of their predecessors’ failures, the Lumières finally could announce they’d made a color photograph. Though images were expensive to produce and required a special viewer called a diascope, photo critics praised the invention. The colors, though a bit grainy, were gorgeous. In 1907, Wilson’s Photographic Magazine called the autochrome process “the greatest discovery in photography since Daguerre made his first daguerreotype. It is to photography what the discovery of perpetual motion would be to mechanics.”
Professional photographers immediately began working in color, but these first color slides—most often used for landscape photographs—are rarely part of family collections. You can see the clear, vibrant pictures reproduced in National Geographic magazines published between 1914 and 1937 and on the Library of Congress website. Yet public acclaim wasn’t enough to overcome the production and viewing difficulties. Few photographers used the process after 1909.

Bright ideas

It was another 30 years before family photographers had access to affordable, user-friendly color processes. In 1935, Kodachrome 16mm motion picture color film became available. A year later, Kodak introduced a 35mm color reversal (developed into a transparency, rather than a print) still film marketed to professional photographers.
In 1942, Kodak sold Kodacolor, its first negative color film (developed into a print). Its new consumer products led Kodak to its greatest period of economic growth in the 1950s, writes Douglas Collins in The Story of Kodak (Harry Abrams). Annual net earnings doubled to $100 million from 1953 to 1957.
You can spot your family’s conversion to color in your photo boxes and albums. When I was a kid, snapping color pictures with my Ansco camera was a cinch, but my instant images taken with a Polaroid Swinger were still black and white. My family finally went all-color in the late 1950s. Curious, I posed a question on my Facebook profile: “Do you remember the first time you saw a color photograph?” Michael Meggison wrote that his 1967 baby photos were Polaroids, and his mom had color images of herself taken in 1942. Patricia Mary remembers her family taking color pictures in the 1960s. Lois Abromitis Mackin had the earliest family involvement. “My grandparents were very advanced—my grandfather took color home movies in the 1930s, sadly, not well preserved. … There’s a color photo of me as an infant in the winter of 1950 or 1951.”
To promote camera and film sales, Kodak and other manufacturers taught consumers about color photography in instructional manuals. After years of black and white, our families needed new picture-taking skills. Clothing choices became important, for example, because the family shutterbug had to be concerned with color balance and background. Seemingly overnight, color took over in family albums. No one had to guess the color of Grandpa Joe’s eyes or the hue of Aunt Mabel’s skirt.
Singer Paul Simon even crooned about color in his song “Kodachrome”: “They give us those nice bright colors. They give us the greens of summers. Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day … so Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away.” Mama didn’t, but Kodak eventually did: Kodachrome was discontinued in June 2009, a victim of the digital photography revolution.
If you have undeveloped rolls of film lying around, don’t throw them away until you look at the website for Rocky Mountain Film, a company that specializes in processing older film formats. Keep in mind the film is batch-processed, so it may be months before you see the results. Read all the site’s details about the type of film before you send off your rolls.
Shooting rolls of film and then waiting to get the photos back took time and patience. Until 1947, amateur photographers either sent their rolls of film to a lab for developing or did it themselves in a home darkroom. Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land’s invention of “instant” black-and-white pictures that developed in a minute changed that. Photographers could shoot a picture, watch it develop and place it in the family album. It was the dawn of a new age of family photography. Millions of folks bought the new cameras and film, even though they were black-and-white. Then in the 1970s, Polaroid patented a color instant film. According to The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography (Focal Press) consumers shot upwards of a billion Polaroids in 1974. Close to 65 percent of that number were color images. But even 60-second developing couldn’t compete with digital technology. Polaroid filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008, and has discontinued its instant film products, but now markets an instant mobile photo printer.

Hue and cry

Color snapshots enliven photo albums with their realistic portrayals of daily life. But there’s a downside: These images are fragile. Look at an album of color photos. What might not be immediately noticeable, depending how long the pictures have been exposed to light, is that they’re all in various stages of fading. To make the change in color quality obvious, compare an old print to a new one, or hold an image that’s been in dark storage to one you’ve displayed in a sunny room.
Color shifting is a type of damage caused by the chemical instability of the color process and exposure to light. Color images consist of three basic colors, cyan (blue), magenta (red) and yellow, and sometimes black. The dyes making up each of these colors fade at different rates. My childhood pictures show bright red lips, for example, not the natural color. The reds have become brighter, while other colors have faded. Photos also may take on an overall blue, yellow or brown tint. The photographic materials and the type of processing also affect deterioration rates. Unfortunately, damage to color photographs isn’t limited to those placed out for public view. Some photos will fade or change colors even when stored in proper materials, in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment.
Today, most photographs are printed on resin-coated (RC) papers, which are coated with a substance that protects the image from abrasion. Over time, these RC papers develop cracking. Henry Wilhelm, in his technical publication The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional, and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures (Preservation Publishing Co.) is a kind of exposé on the deterioration of color photographs—and a story of lost pictures, photographic memories destroyed by the elements that consumers purchased to preserve them. (You can visit Wilhelm Imaging Research online.)

Kodacolor film, used between 1942 and 1953, has one of the worst preservation records. Today, the prints are almost illegible due to yellow staining; negatives are irreparably damaged and unprintable. Nearly all Ektachrome slides, used from 1959 to 1976, by now show fading and color shifting. Agfacolor Color Type 4 photo paper, used between 1974 and 1982 by discount photo processors and commercial studio photographers, also have dramatically faded.
But instant pictures deteriorate the fastest. Each film “pack” sandwiches chemicals between sheets of plastic; when the layers pass through the camera’s rollers, they react to produce an image. (Peel-apart film, in which the chemical layer is separated from the image layer and discarded after developing, is more stable than integral film, in which the layers remain intact.) But the chemicals break down and are susceptible to reactions with other materials, and the plastic casing may crack. How the film pack is handled before, during and after the shutter clicks also affects the photo’s longevity—for example, yellowing is exacerbated if the developed print isn’t given enough time to dry before it’s enclosed in a frame or storage container. According to Anne Wilker’s 2004 report The Composition and Preservation of Instant Films for the University of Texas at Austin, instant photos’ dyes tend to fade in lit conditions; an overall yellowing happens in dark storage.
A friend of mine bought an SX-70 camera as soon as it came out in 1972. For 25 years, he abandoned traditional color prints for the convenience of instant film when documenting important events in his family. Most of his photos are now in various stages of deterioration, such as cracking and staining. Another downfall of instant images? No negative to make another print.
The digital age introduces both a saving grace—the ability to scan and enhance photos before they fade away—and an unknown: How long will these digitized images last? Experts recommend backing up your digital photos online and on high-quality digital media (such as CD-Rs), and migrating them to new media to combat technological obsolescence. You’ll help ensure future family members will see their ancestors’ true colors, too.
Photo facts
• Kodak ceased Kodachrome film production in 2009. 
• In 2004, Polaroid warned customers not to “shake it like a Polaroid picture,” which could distort a developing image.

The Wizard of Oz was filmed in Technicolor, a process requiring such bright lighting that on-set temperatures sometimes exceeded 100 degrees.


From the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine

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