The age of colours

Kinemacolor projector (left) and Kinemacolor camera, on display at the Capturing Colour exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. The projector is from the Sarosh Collection at the National Media Museum; the camera is from Hove Museum

This is the age of colours, it is colour everywhere.

So wrote Charles T. Kock, in a 1909 essay surveying the history and philosophy of colour printing in Penrose’s Pictorial Annual. Kock was marvelling at number of forms of colour reproduction – in printing, clothing manufacture, building, household goods, photography and cinematography. The interesting inference to be made is that it would have been within the experience of his readers to remember a time when the world was not filled with colours; a monochrome Victorian age from which the Edwardian era had gratefully escaped.

Of course there had always been colour, but it was the reproducibility of man-made colour that was brightening Kock’s world. The roots of this can be traced back to the 1850s. It was in 1856 that William Henry Perkin, at the tender age of eighteen synthesized an artifical dye, mauveine, which could be applied to clothes to give an intense purplish hue (mauve). Previously clothes had been coloured used natural dyes, which often lacked stability. Now lasting colours through aniline dyes could be created, and the process industrialised. The year before, in 1855, physicist James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated the principle of three-colour photography, showing how bringing together three separate versions of the same image photographed through red, green and blue filters, could, when aligned together, create a colour record (Maxwell was expounding the theory; he did not present a practical demonstration until 1861).

American chromolithograph showing a roadside inn c.1872, from Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, via Wikimedia Commons

The creation of man-made colours acrosss different media and forms continued throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Other aniline dyes were created. Colour printing was given a huge boost by the commercial development of chromolithography (lithorgraphy was first invented in 1796 but didn’t properly include colour until 1839), bringing colour reproductions of paintings into millions of homes. Louis Ducos du Hauron, Charles Cros, E. Sanger-Shepherd and Frederic Ives experimented with forms of colour photography, culminating in the hauntingly beautiful Autochrome process in 1907, invented by the Lumière brothers (founding fathers of cinematography, of course).

Colour came to cinematography as well, in the form of artificial colours applied by hand or in mechanised fashion by use of stencils, until the invention of the first natural colour motion picture colour system, Kinemacolor, patented in 1906 and first commercialised in 1908. Kinemacolor, as with the man-made colours to be found enlivening clothes, illustrations, advertisements, popular prints, posters, magic lantern slides, wallpaper designs, photographs and so much more, had a particular dual appeal at this period when colour was a saleable attraction in itself. I note this in my thesis, which I will take the liberty of quoting here:

There are, however, two kinds of colour reproductions to be considered here. There is the colour picture in the purely naturalistic sense, which offers an approximately faithful record of nature (or, as was more accurately the case with chromolithographs, a faithful record of a work of art that reproduced nature), and there is the colour picture where colour itself, to whatever form or degree, is the attraction in itself. These two forms were not mutually exclusive.The attraction, the desirable commodity, was colour. It was seen as something additional to that which had gone before, an enhancement which could denote beauty, superiority, social status or commercial value, according to usage. Colour was truer, better, brighter; colour drew attention to itself. This twin appeal of colour as natural and colour as the subject in itself was central to the exploitation of Kinemacolor. Tom Gunning sets out colour’s ‘contradictory role’ in cinema by stating that on one hand ‘there is the claim, made most explicitly by Bazin’s essay “The Myth of Total Cinema”, that color plays an essential part in the fulfilling of the ideal of cinema’s first inventors, “the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, color and relief”’, while on the other, ‘color can also appear in cinema with little reference to reality, as a purely sensuous presence, an element which can even indicate a divergence from reality’. The evidence of chromolithography, Kinemacolor, and other media from this period, however, indicates a more complex situation, a desire for reality and super-reality at the same time, which was to a significant extent created by the very limitations of the technical processes that enabled such colours to be reproduced.

Colour that draws attention to itself while at the same time trying to denote reality (and so by implication striving not to be noticeable at all) is the subject of Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder, an exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. The exhibition positions itself within the history of capturing colour across different forms, but concentrates on film’s part in this history, with a particular emphasis on early film. Brighton is the right location for such an exhibition, because it was here that George Albert Smith discovered that by employing red and green filters only (leaving out blue) he could achieve a satisfactorily realistic colour motion picture effect, which would be named Kinemacolor (patented in 1906, but a letter on display makes it clear that Smith had made his breakthrough in 1904). As well as Smith, the inventor William Norman Lascelles Davidson, Benjamin Jumeaux, Otto Pfenninger and William Friese-Greene were all working on colour photography and cinematography at the same time, each of the Brighton and Hove residents.

Kromskop viewer (left) and projecting Kromskop, on display at the Capturing Colour exhibition

The exhibition takes us from innovations in colour reproduction in the nineteenth century, to the arrival of film and the extensive use of applied colour (hand[ainted, stencil, tinted), the work of Brighton photographers and filmmakers, the three-colour principle established by Maxwell and its exposition by Frederic Ives with his Kromskop camera (which produced fine colour images but which did not solve the problem of how to fix these in a form you could hang on the wall), the first motion picture colour system of 1899 (which failed to work) of Frederick Marshall Lee and Edward Turner, the successes of Kinemacolor and its rival Biocolour (invented by Friese-Greene), later colour processes such as Technicolor, Dufaycolor, Kodachrome and Eastmancolour, colour television, and finally digital colour today – with a fascnating comparison of different digital images of Brighton beach, showing how various and relative our ostensibly ‘perfect’ means of reproducing colour remain. Colour, ultimately, is all in the mind.

I warmly recommend the exhibition, which not only tells of a time when colour could not been taken for granted, but reminds us never to take colour for granted. It includes such treats as stereoscopes, a Kinemacolor camera and projector, a Lee-and-Turner three-colour projector, an Ives Kromskop and projecting Kromskop, a Technicolor camera, and impressive use of film clips throughout which serve as a model of how to integrate moving images with more traditional museum objects. There are also things for children to do in every room.

The Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has produced an online version of the exhibition, which duplicates each of the sections with some lovely colour images (no film clips though, alas).

The Tom Gunning essay referred to above, ‘Colorful Metaphors: the Attraction of Color in Early Silent Cinema‘, is an excellent (and freely-available) guide to the meanings of colour in early cinema, placing films within the wider context of contemporary colour reproduction (particularly book illustrations).

The history of mauve is told by Simon Garfield in Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World – a first-rate read.

The great book on chromolithography is Peter C. Marzio’s The democratic art: Pictures for a 19th-century America: chromolithography, 1840-1900. It’s well worth hunting down a copy.

You can find links to all of the Bioscope’s posts on colour film in the Colourful Stories series (from Maxwell to Chronochrome) here.

The Capturing Colour exhibition, which has free admission, remains open until 20 March 2011.

3 responses

  1. Luke – re your video clip of the Kinemacolor equipment. The projector is from the Sarosh Collection at the National Media Museum; the camera is from Hove. As you know, we have a number of Kinemacolr cameras in our collection. The Kromscop viewer is also from the NMeM’s collection. I think Frank Gray and the team at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery did a great job on this exhibition.

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