2009 marks the 100th anniversary of colour photography. Today, as new technologies carry the innovation into realms unimaginable in 1909, Dushko Petrovich of the Boston Globe offers a lyrical eulogy for the colour print.
Princeton University Press is marking this centennial with a beautifully illustrated book. The Dawn of the Color Photograph is a handsome document full of lush and memorable images. Most of us still picture 1909 exclusively in black and white, so it's a revelation to peer back 100 years and see such eerily bright hues. French soldiers - dressed inadvisably in red, white, and blue - carve trenches through the verdant countryside; members of the Indian aristocracy, though recently stripped of power, still gather for a portrait wrapped in a defiant regalia of lavender, gold, maroon, and orange. Back in its heyday, the Moulin Rouge is pictured truly red. The most poignant autochromes - the really haunting ones - are those where the richness of color fixes people whose ways of life are unwittingly on the verge of extinction: Farmers, shepherds, and weavers all stand still as their tools and costumes enter the afterlife through a revolutionary new medium.
To reflect on the past invites us to ponder the state of the medium in our own time.
As an object, the color print has finally been perfected. And yet, the 100th anniversary of Kahn's project isn't so much a triumphant moment as an elegiac one. Like the shepherds, the color print has nearly vanished.
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Printing is still just as easy and cheap as it ever was, but given the option, we now prefer to save - or upload - instead. That tells us something about our appetite for convenience, but even more about what we want from photographs in the first place. The object itself, no matter how crisp and permanent, how lush or mysterious, turns out to matter less than our ability to capture, store, and share an image. Without the print, photography's magical power - to freeze a moment in time - is still ours. In fact, although we continue to think of the photograph as a physical thing, we are finding out that it better serves our needs without being printed.
Petrovich then considers what we have lost in the transition as well as what we have gained. I wouldn't think of posting excerpts of this lyrical contemplation, and happily refer readers to the Globe article.