From color to black & white

by DRM

The photographic record is a distinctly modern artifact. Before the portable camera, visual record emanated from the imagination, translated by an artist’s hand. The photograph captured visual images in a deceptively accurate rendering, with detail that could be placed like a scrim over our eyes and keep images unmarred.

Smart observers point to the inaccuracies embedded in photographs. The absence of dimension and the editorial intent of the photographer manipulate our reaction to what is only an image, and subject to all the limitations that images have.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with photographs from the 1920’s and 1930’s as I take the two protaganists in my novel through the decade that would leave them with thwarted hopes, meagre circumstances and a seemingly-fated and ultimately disappointing love.

All those photos are in black and white, and as I shuffle through them, I have to fight through the washed-out bleak feeling that the grey tones leave.

How much do those black and white photos influence our perception of the time?

Look back at the photos above. These are early Kodachrome shots from the late 1930’s, when the country was still struggling to pull itself out of its lost decade.

The black and white photo loses the quiet color of the slum houses in Washington. It loses the ruddy good health of the struggling farmers on a government reclamation plot. The black and white photos lose the color that people bring to even the most unfortunate lives, renders an archeological record that lacks the depth and vigor of our life.

You can see a collection of early Kodachromes here.