The Genius of Color Photography by Pamela Roberts

The Genius of Colour Photography by Pamela Roberts

I recently finished reading the above book on the history of colour photography by Pamela Roberts, a former Curator at the Royal Photographic Society.

The book charts the development of colour photography throughout history from the launch of the autochrome in 1907 to the present day.  One of the factors that made this book appealing was that Robert’s discusses the technical developments and processes alongside the historical events and social developments that have influenced the photography world. Another factor was that accompanying Roberts discussions was a wonderful array photographs, many by photographs whose work that I have previously not been familiar with.

I will outline some focal points she discusses and photographs she chose to include.


Roberts (p12) notes that practically as soon as photography was invented the race was on for colour. The most popular solution at this time was to add colour to photographic prints by hand, using brushes, oils, watercolours or powdered pigments. She notes that many surviving daguerreotypes show hand colouring to varying effect. However, many experiments were underway to find a way to produce a colour photograph that could be printed to show ‘true’ colours.

I found some aspects of this chapter confusing. Mainly, when Robert’s describes the technical processes that inventors were undertaking at the time. Compared with the convenience that the technology of today offers it is an understatement to say the processes involved sound labour intensive.


This chapter is devoted to the autochrome, the first commercially available colour process, invented by French brothers, Louis Jean Lumière (1864-1948) and August Marie Nicolas Lumière (1862-1954). The autochrome was launched in 1907.

The science behind the process was a little too much for me to get my head around but did involve microscopic grains of potato starch, glass plates and emulsion. It’s great appeal was that it could be used in any plate camera and photographers could learn the processing and development of the plate after exposure quickly. A disadvantage was that, at least initially, the exposure times were long.

Roberts notes that the autochrome is widely regarded as the most beautiful photographic process ever invented and from the photographs she has selected in the book it is easy to see why.

The soft colours and atmospheric haziness bring to mind Impressionistic paintings from the late 1800 and in particular the one below, Repas de famille Lumiere, en 1910  (although the colours are stronger in the reproduction in Roberts’ book) which looks like a scene that Renoir may have chosen to paint.

Indeed, Roberts notes that the grains involved in the autochrome process tended to form clumps that could be seen by the naked eye, that seemed to add to it’s charm giving it a pointillist effect.

I thought the autochrome taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn, Girl on a red hammock, c 1908 was a beautiful example of bold use of colour, the red dominating the composition. Freeman (2005, p34) notes that red has many associations including energy, blood, heat, passion or power. To me the lady in the hammock seems relaxed although her pose and gaze are turned towards the camera and photographer. Perhaps in this example the use of red has associations with sensuality, warmth and love?

I also like the fact that there are no obvious clues in the setting or in the model’s clothing or dress that tells us this photograph was taken over 100 years ago. It could just have easily been taken in the 1960’s or 70’s. To me, it seems to have a timeless quality.


The autochrome continued to dominates for 25 years after it’s launch. However, the fact that only a single exposure could be made from a glass plate, the glass plate’s fragility and it’s overall cost did not make its future viable.

Monochrome photography now often used flexible roll-film negative in portable hand-held cameras, which was quick, easy and cheap to print at home. This alongside the rapid growth in cinematography was changing artistic and photographic aesthetics. Cars, telephones, radio and electricity were also becoming more commonplace resulting in a faster pace of life, creating a desire for quick, simple options to replace autochrome colour.

Roberts outlines some of the techniques that were being examined in colour photography at this time and several of the photographers who were carrying this out including Edward Stiechan (1979-1973). Stiechan experimented with many new colour processes including the gum platinum process he used for his famous Flatiron Building (1904).

The photograph holds shadows and silhouettes to create an atmospheric evening scene, which, to me, holds the suggestion of mystery and the unknown.  I have seen this image before in books but wasn’t aware that Steichan used the negative to print the photograph in different sizes while experimenting with different processes to change the overall feel.  This made me pause to consider in the ways in which a modern-day digital negative could be utilised to give a photograph different feel? There is a wealth of effects offered in post-processing by Photoshop, the majority of which I am probably as of yet unaware of. There are also printer and ink options that could be considered. The paper the photograph is to be printed on offers more choices with various textures and finishes available which could add to the overall feeling of a photograph. All these are decisions that I will need to apply research to, particularly before I submit work for formal assessment.

While colour photography cannot be neatly divided into decades the following sections each cover a ten-year period to show the technical advances and common themes and influences around that time.


While Leica had introduced the first 35mm camera in 1925, the 30s saw it became more available mainstream providing the convenience simple processing saw the demise of the majority of glass plate processes.

Some considered the onslaught of colour in magazines, advertising and the film industry to be crass and ‘serious’ photographers stuck with the more ‘realistic’ black and white.

The horrors of World War I had led to an avant-garde backlash against the pre-war Pictorialism and for colour photographers the major influence was European Surrealism. Roberts describes the new tastes as ‘a predilection for exploring the sexual, psychological, the abstract, the fanciful and allowing the unconscious imagination to run riot’.

An example from this era that I found interesting was Machine Worker in Summer , taken by Madame Yevonde (1893-1975) in 1937.

The photograph shows a young woman, naked except for flowers in her hair, seated at an old Singer sewing machine. We can see her side on as she works at the machine, sewing billowing metres of sheer, pale coloured fabric. Her surroundings, overhead flowers and a bird in a decorative cage, do not suggest a workplace, but rather a home or garden. Yevonde had staged this scene and I became aware that this was an example of tableau photography, an area of photography I had learned of when reading Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2009).  It made me wonder what story Yevonde had intended the photograph to tell.

The flowers, the woman’s naked form, the flowing fabrics and mainly pastel colours used make the photograph, for me, feel soft, romantic and delicate. It also sparked feelings of nostalgia for me as I recalled my mother using a similar style Singer sewing machine at home when I was young.

I wondered was the woman working to create a gown to wear for an important event or perhaps she is an actress busily creating a performance ensemble?

Roberts (p95) describes the photograph as half way between a Surrealist image and a silly one. She suggests it may have been a speculative proposal for a Singer sewing machine advertisement or inspired by historical art masterpieces, something that Yevonde advised other photographs to look at for inspiration.


The 35mm Kodachrome colour roll film was launched in 1936 and this, alongside the 35mm cameras of the late 30s and early 40s allowed amateur photographers to shoot in colour.

The photographs from this chapter which I found of most interest where those that had recorded events of World War II, such as the work of Alfred T. Palmer (1906-1993) ( who toured aircraft factories in California and Kansa in 1942 to compile a series of photographs showing woman in the workplace preparing for war. ‘Woman working on an airplane motor at north American Aviation Inc. Plant in California, June 1942, is one such image, which shows a pretty woman concentrating on her work with a piece of shiny and complicated looking machinery. She sports a colourful headscarf and wears lipstick and a (birthday?) badge stating ‘29’.  I looked at several other examples of Palmer’s work from the series on-line and couldn’t help but think that most appear staged.  Perhaps rather ideal versions of factory work in the 1940s war years?  This is perhaps not surprising as Roberts (p110) continues to note that the during this time the US government promoted a propaganda campaign to recruit 6 million woman to work in manufacturing plants during WWII.

On the other John Hinde’s (1916-97) photographs from ‘Citizens in War – and After’ series show raw images of war-torn London during the London blitz. Hinde was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to record the experiences of the Civil Defence Forces and everyday citizens during wartime. The ‘And After’ element of the series title was intended to boost morale although I did find it interesting to note that the images were not published until 1945, the year peace was declared.

The 1940s saw the formation of the Magnum agency in 1947 by Bresson (1908-2004), Capa (1913-154), Seymour (1911-56) and Rodger (1908-95) the majority of who (Capa being the exception) retained monochrome photography as their preferred medium of choice.


Roberts notes that a major trend in the use of colour photography in the 50’s was linked to the growing magazine numbers, particularly within the Condé Nast empire. The art director of Condé Nast, at the time, Alexander Liberman, changed the direction of the magazine by replacing stuffy, formal, artificial photographs to replace them with surrealism, abstraction, minimalism, naturalism and modernism.

Roberts devotes a considerable section of this chapter to the work of Ernst Haas (1921-86) an Austrian photographer who wrote about his work, saying that (p139), ‘color is joy. One does not think joy. One is carried by it. Learn by doing it or even better unlearn by doing’ When looking at the photographs of Haas it is hard to not to think of his words linking colour and joy. Roberts shows an example of this in ‘La Suerte de Capa’ (1956).

This is an example of Haas’ work with panning the camera to blur the motion and a slow shutter speed to drag and mix colours. I find the results quite beautiful. The orange/red of the matador’s cape is centrally and visually dominant. Its brightness catches the eye immediately and brings associations with danger and fear. The movement in the image brings energy and excitement.  As I am studying colour at the minute I couldn’t help but noting the blue and orange combinations within this composition. Freeman (2005, p102) notes the harmony between orange and blue and states that this arises from not only the contrast in brightness (orange is twice as bright as blue) but also from the apparent cool/warm in the pairing.

I looked a little further into Haas’ work and noted the use of colour in his flora series  The colours vary between the image from being saturated and bold to being soft and delicate. This series of work is something that I will take the time to examine further.

Interesting Haas was signed by Magnum in 1949 and throughout the 50s continued with agency in various roles including vice-president of Magnum America and Magnum president.


Several technical advances also produced developments in the way colour was used in photography. The Cibachrome became available and was noted for its stability and rich colour saturation. Roberts (p147) notes that it is still in use today, called the Iffochrome. In addition, Kodak launched its easy to use Instamatic 126 camera while Polaroid launched its first instant colour film.

There also was a rise in the number of photography courses, both theoretical and practical that had arisen, particularly in the US.

While colour photographs were already being widely circulated through upmarket magazines, the 60s saw the arrival of the colour supplement to newspapers. In the UK, The Sunday Times published its first colour supplement in 1962 followed by the Observer in 1964.

Many photographers had now become the part of the new, hip 1960s pop culture. Marie Cosindas (b.1925) photographed Andy Warhol in his studio; Daniel Kramer photographed Bob Dylan almost daily during 1964-65 and Lee Friedlander (b.1934) Atlantic Records artists for album covers.  This mix of music, art, film and fashion is something I have noted before when reading On Being a Photographer by Jay, B and Hurn, D. (1997) and how Hurn photographed famous actors for film studios.

A few months ago I also viewed work by Terry O’Neill (b.1938), selection of portraits of celebrities’ from music and film.  Terry,  notes that in the 1960s the relationship between the photographer and celebrity were quite different from today and that the ‘celebrities’ were his friends with whom he socialised. 

Ernst Haas gets a further mention in this chapter, primarily for his 1962 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art  (MOMA). This was MOMA’s first solo exhibition of colour prints and also one of the last exhibitions planned by Director of the Department of Photographs, Edward Steichen who retired later that year.

 By the late 60s colour photography was beginning to be more widely viewed in travelling exhibitions and in museums.


In 1970s Britain, things were changing for photography, albeit slowly. Some of these changes included the foundation of The Photographer’s Gallery in London in 1971 by Sue Davis, the appointment of Barry Lane as the Arts Council’s first photography officer in 1973 and the first major photography auction being held at Sotheby’s in 1971. Photographs were now being recognised as having monetary value and in the US (where things were moving at a quicker pace) several commercial photography galleries opened.

This decade also saw an increasing number of photojournalists using colour in their documentary work.

 Roberts (p162) notes that an increasing number of photographers at this time switched to colour, among them was Walker Evans (1903-75). Evans had always considered colour photography to be vulgar, however he began working in colour for an intense 15-month period just before his death, focusing on street markings, architecture and subjects that reflected small-town Americana.

Another photographer from this era whose work I found to be of particular interest is Joel Meyerowitz (b.1938). Meyerowitz works exclusively in colour and would often wait for days to achieve the perfect combination of light and colour values. Meyerowitz believes

‘Photography is about description’, ‘the description of sensations I get from things –color, surface, texture – and by extension, my memory of them under other conditions, as well as their connotative qualities’.

Taken in Cape Cod, where Meyerowitz spent family vacations, Laundry, Provincetown (1977), has the frame half filled with lines of laundry, billowing in the wind. The top half of the frame is filled with a blue sky awash with soft white clouds. Meyerowitz has ‘described’ the scene so that, for me, the overall effect feels light and airy. When viewing it you can almost imagine the smell of the fresh, sea air and the wind in your hair.  Roberts (p172) notes that colour harmony of the orange/blue grey juxtaposition is a favourite of Meyerowitz and can also be seen in Cold Storage Beach, Truro (1976).

Here, the sky occupies around the majority of the frame with just strips of sea and sand to be seen at the bottom of the frame.  I think this photograph has painterly qualities, as everything seems soft and hazy. The calmness of the sea suggests, to me, a sense of peace and tranquility. The figures on the beach appear tiny in relation to the vastness of the sky and the distance of the horizon. I live very close to the beach and would love to attempt a shot like this however the sea is generally busy with boat traffic so perhaps the overall sense of calm that Cold Storage Beach, Truro has would not be conveyed?


Roberts (184) notes that in the 1980’s the arts world took on a Postmodern cast and the most important themes were appropriation, identity politics, startling inventiveness, gender representation, self-absorption and the exploration of sexuality. There also were a growing number of artists choosing to use photography as a medium.

Martin Parr (b.1952), who Roberts (p187) describes as one of the ‘New Documentarists’ of the time, explored British class prejudices and the demise of social values in Thatcher’s Britain. His first colour publication was The Last Resort (1986) a series of photographs shot over 3 years in the worn-out working class-northern seaside town of New Brighton. Roberts notes that at the time of release these images were considered by some to be shocking and exploitative of the subjects’ lives. When I viewed them for the first time recently they didn’t ‘shock’ me, however I am aware that I was viewing them 27 years after they were published in an era when genuinely disturbing images can be viewed in newspapers. I found them interesting, as I do with most of Parr’s work as many of them record social interactions and elements of ‘British’ life that are familiar or amusing.

Roberts discusses several photographers who were noted for their staged, or tableau photography, one of which is William Wegman (b.1943). Wegman was a conceptual and fine artist who used photography and video for his work.  Ray and Mrs. Lubner in bed watching TV (1981) shows Wegman’s dogs posed in a bed, draped in blankets supposedly watching a TV (we can only see the aerial) that sits at the bottom of the bed.  The overall effect is both surreal and comical. I’m not sure that I can say I like it, but it is interesting. It left me wondering how in earth he managed to got the dogs to stay in the pose in this photograph and the numerous others I viewed on Wegman’s website.

 1990- today

Roberts ends the book by asking ‘will digital photography eventually replace film cameras?’ I considered this question for quite some time. I assume that the majority of photographers in 2013 will use digital technology to make pictures, embracing the convenience, the control and quality that it offers. Particularly when compared to the long exposure times, technical development processes and size and weight of some early photography systems.

I recalled from Charlotte Cotton’s (2009) book, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, that she devoted a chapter to ‘Revived and Remade’. In this she notes (p206) that many photographic processes from the late 1830s and 1840s, such as the photogram and daguerreotype, have been revived in recent years. Suggesting that artist/photographers may choose to experiment with old and new techniques when making pictures.

Roberts (p204) agrees by noting that there is a growing interest in the history of photography in degree courses including the complex photography techniques of the past.


I have written more in this review than I initially intended to, however it has been a valuable process helping me to organise my thoughts on paper (or screen).

When explaining the photography techniques of the past Roberts lost me a little on the technical details, however it was still interesting to learn about the pros and cons of each system and how, in various ways, they contributed to the development of subsequent, improved photography technologies.

The book has also introduced me to the work of several photographers whose subject matter, style and use of colour I think could be inspiring.

These photographers are –

Saul Leiter (b.1923)

Ernst Haas (1921-86)

Joel Meyerowitz (b.1938)

John Batho (b.1939)

Franco Fontana (b.1933)

William Eggleston (b.1939)

Uta Barth (b.1958)

Naoya Hatakeyama (b.1958)

Catherine Yass (b. 1963)

Cotton, C. (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd Revised ed). London: Thames and Hudson Ltd

Freeman, M. (2005) Digital Photography Expert: Colour. Lewes: ILEX

Robert, P.  (2007) The Genius of Colour Photography: From the Autochrome to the Digital Age. London: Goodman

3 thoughts on “The Genius of Color Photography by Pamela Roberts

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