At the time of the First World War, the world was still black and white or, at best, tinted. There are real World War I photos in color, yet they seem almost unnatural today.
World On Fire In The World War I Photos In Color
In people's perception, the world wars of the 20th century took place in black and white. Historical film material is now being colorized on the computer for modern documentaries. However, these colorized World War I photos do not show reality.
Critics also object that this falsifies the image composition and destroys the balance of black, white, and gray tones, which betrays the film's artistic character and creates a false reception attitude.
Coloring was also common a hundred years ago. Up until the 1920s, the most widespread color image medium was the postcard. But where pink clouds float on a pale blue sky, the basis is an ordinary black-and-white image.
The color was also being experimented with in film shortly after the turn of the century. In addition to the highly complex coloring of individual images, the method of monochromatic toning of entire sequences was standard. The color served as a dramaturgical medium: blue stood for the night, green for nature, and red for the at least partially identical scenarios of love and danger.
But is it possible to obtain an authentic color image of the era? Are there real World War I photos and films?
World War I Photos In Color Exist Thanks To Potato Starch
Colored film footage of the war has not survived, even if there were early attempts to project three parallel black-and-white films on top of each other using color filters. World War I photos in color exist with surprisingly innovative technology.
The method of exposing three black-and-white photographs with color filters and projecting them one on top of the other has been known since 1861.
The system, which was cumbersome in practice, faced competition in 1907 from a plate technique by the Lumière brothers, who called it "Autochrome."
It was the forerunner of actual color film. A glass plate coated with glue was dusted with transparent potato starch particles in the colors orange-red, green, and violet. These particles were so small that up to 8,000 particles fit on a square millimeter. They had to cover the slab without gaps, and the layer could only be one grain thick. A thin photosensitive emulsion was then poured over it.
In the camera, the light hit the plate from the glass side; the differently colored starch particles acted like tiny color filters. That allowed only one color range of the light spectrum to pass through to the light-sensitive layer. After the development, a glass slide with an attractive, pointillistic colorfulness was created.
Until then, the motif had to be photographed three times for a colored depiction, but now a single photograph was sufficient. Before the First World War, hundreds of thousands of color photographs were taken using this technique.
If you want to see World War I photos in color from an authentic source today, you won't find any film material. But you can fall back on several thousand autochromes, most of them come from French photo reporters.
In the spring of 1915, the Photographic Department of the Army was established.
Initially, 15 photographers were hired, mainly documenting life on the stage. Since the exposure times for snapshots were long, every kind of movement had to be recreated. They are the main capturers of World War I photos in color.
Archives Of The Planet In World War I Photos In Color
Outside the military, many other photographers captured wartime events in color. These World War I photos in color are taken from a French perspective and were taken in hospitals or the hinterland.
Photographer Jules Gervais-Courtellemont was a regular photographer for L'Illustration magazine. His World War I photos in the color of the First Battle of the Marne and the trench warfare in Verdun even appeared in book form in 1915 and 1916, respectively.
Some of the photo reporters, a total of twelve autochrome photographers that can be named on the French side, worked at the same time for Albert Kahn's company.
In 1908, the philanthropic banker, a friend of Henri Bergson's, set out to enrich people's knowledge and promote mutual understanding. He published World War I photos in color in his Archives of the Planet. After Khan lost his entire fortune in the 1929 stock market crash, the company petered out.
Only a few color photos of the Australians Frank Hurley and George Hubert Wilkins are known on the Entente side. They were created using a process patented in England in 1912 known as the "Paget Color System."
This process, however, was inferior to autochromes. The only one surviving from the World War I photos in color that the Russian photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorski took of Austrian prisoners of war in Karelia in 1915 is not entirely color stable.
The only photographer on the part of the Central Powers who captured the events of the war in World War I photos in color was Hans Hildenbrand from Stuttgart.
War photography was not centralized in Germany until the Image and Film Office was set up in 1917.
Officially, there were only nineteen accredited war photographers. Yet, with the permission of the local military authorities, photographers became active, especially in the areas near the border.
Hildenbrand took World War I photos in color in 1915 and 1916 in the Vosges and Alsace. And, like his French colleagues, he primarily recorded what was happening on the front.
More than eighty autochromes and a dozen stereo color photographs have survived, the only ones that exist from the First World War.
Why Do Colorized Images Appear More Believable Than Real World War I Photos In Color?
Why does the early twentieth century seem more believable in the artificial pastels than in the impressionistic granularity of the Autochrome?
We always associate our idea of color with an epoch when the colored images were widespread. What we could reproduce as World War I photos in color, in the style of the present with our technical means, does not appear authentic.
Of course, the contemporaries of the First World War did not perceive their world in watercolors or behind a grid of small colorful crumbs.
Today, we consider artificial World War I photos in color to be more authentic than those in the Autochrome due to the media dominance.
Often, when we search for colorized World War I photos, we come up with hundreds of thousands of bright postcards compared to a few thousand real color photos, which are still relatively unknown.
In this way, each historical period has its color aesthetic. Even if only forest, sky, and clouds can be seen, we can tell when the color film shown is from when we switch the TV.
The producers of historical dramas, on the other hand, play with our knowledge of the color characteristics of an epoch when they equip historical material or re-enacted scenes with the coloring that is supposedly typical of the time.
But what we think of as the authentic color of age is a product of our viewing habits. More than a hundred years have passed since the outbreak of World War I. We have a flood of World War I photos in color to recreate and remember the past.
This changes our visual memory and our expectations of photography. But, what remains is the disconcerting certainty that hundred years ago, the sky was no different blue than it is today.