Category Archives: 14a-Introduction to colour

Part Three- Introduction to Colour

This section begins with a brief history of colour in photography.

Photography was originally a black-and-white medium, not because this was thought to be in any more way refined, but for photography it was the norm. This was entirely due to technical reasons as film chemistry was refined, cheap nor reliable in the 19th century.

Photographers discovered the artistic scope of working in a black-and-white format including (as noted in the Chapter Two, Elements of Design discussions) that it helps to focus attention on graphic elements such as lines, shapes and tones, by removing the distraction of colour.

As a result, many of the photographers who have had an immense influence of photography, worked before colour became accessible. The course notes refer to Steichen, Weston and Cartier-Bresson as examples of this.

I carried out some research on these photographers, which I have briefly noted below.

Edward Steichen- American, born Luxembourg, (1879–1973)

  • Featured strongly in Stieglitz’s, Camera Work journal. Over the fifteen-year, fifty-issue run of Camera Work, no other artist would be featured as prominently as Steichen.
  • curator of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art (1947–62), including the 1955 exhibition The Family of Man, a sentimental spectacle that, in various incarnations, that was seen by nine million people around the world and whose frequently reprinted catalogue has sold more than four million copies.

I found it of interesting to note in an on-line Guardian article that Steichen’s landscape photograph ‘The Pond-Moonlight’ was sold for  £1.67m ($2.9m) at auction in February 2006. At the time, it was the most expensive photograph in the world.

Further examples of Steichen’s work can be viewed at

Edward Weston, American, (1886-1958)

  • ‘…belonged to the f/64 Group, a small body of ‘art’ photographers whose title emphasised its member’s commitment to intense and detailed scrutiny of the world according to the principles of technical ability’. (Clarke, 1997, p174)
  • f/64 refers to the smallness of aperture and thus symbolises intent to maximise depth of field (Wells, 1996, p280)

Wells (1996, p279) refers to this concern with form and precision as American formalism, but notes that it was not announced as an art movement, but labeled retrospectively.

Some examples of Weston’s work can be viewed at

Henri Cartier-Bresson, French (1908-2004)

  • co-founder of Magnum photos in 1947. Clarke, (1997, p156) notes that Magnum lays stress on individual approaches and philosophies as part of its  ‘documentary’ approach.
  • ‘the decisive moment’ became the foundation for Cartier-Bresson’s approach and practice. He waited for the world to compose itself into an image that he judged to be both visually informative and aesthetically pleasing (Price, 1996, p72)

Clarke (1997, p56) notes that Magnum has produced some of the most definitive images of the last fifty years.

Some examples of Cartier-Bresson’s work can be viewed here

The advent of colour photography in the 1960’s and many photographers began experimenting with colour format. By the 1980’s it had become a broadly accepted, normal component of photography. It was recognised the response to colour can be strong, both physiologically and psychologically and in turn function as a powerful element of design in an image.

The course notes mention, Ernst Haas, Austrian, (1921-86), considered to be one of the great photographic ‘colourists,’ though he began his career in black and white.

  • His landmark exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1962 was the first to challenge the rule of black and white photographs in the art world.
  • Haas was an early member of Magnum Photos.

Philosophies by Haas are recorded at where he notes that the change from black-and-white to colour photography came quite naturally and psychologically. He recalls the post-war years as the back-and-white (or grey) years. After this is was a new beginning and he wanted to celebrate the new times in colour, filled with hope.

I did find it interesting to note that a photographer who is so highly praised for his colour photography advocates that a photographer should know how to do both black and white and colour photography equally well. It reminded me of a statement in the course notes (p104), made in reference to an Itten quotation on unknowledge, knowledge and painting. The statement notes that working by intuition is for a few instinctive photographers, for most people, the way to better photography lies in studying the underlying principles and elements, in this case colour.

The section on colour that follows will help me to

  • Understand the basic properties of colour
  • Learn how to control, alter and modify colour in photography
  • Use colour as an element of design.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Price, D (1996) Surveyors and Surveyed, photography out and about In: Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed.). Oxon: Routledge pp 72-73

Wells, L (1996) The Modern Era In: Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed.). Oxon: Routledge pp 279-281