In-Depth: Early Pioneers of Color Photography


The beginning of the history of color lies in a hallowed pack of film. It has long been discontinued, but is still revered by photographers around the world. Kodachrome. We can not underestimate the meaning and the impact that the saturated colors, the contrasting images and the richness of the hue had on the history of color photography.

It portrayed the whole spectrum of colors to the fullest, and played a decisive role in color photography becoming an acceptable form of art; while for a long time, it was disregarded as pop culture lower quality work.

Prints made in Cibachrome process by community member qbalazs

If there is a country we associate with color photography, it is often India. For many years it has been a fixation for western photographers who want to travel east with a camera in their hands, and follow the footsteps of National Geographic photographers who have immortalized the country's colors.

In the images of Raghubir Singh, we have a collection of life and delight on the streets of India. He is on the road with his camera and with a patient eye that is ready to catch key moments. Armed with his beloved film, supplied by National Geographic, (for whom he worked) he treats the streets of his country the same way as famous American photographers of the likes of William Gedney (a big inspiration for his work) were doing in the USA. Creating images that with brilliant composition and a superb use of color transcend the western gaze, becoming, especially at the end of his career, conceptually profound works of art.

It has been argued that you can't photograph India in black and white and, as a photographer from Rajasthan, Raghubir Singh knows this very well. Through the use of color he delivers a powerful and poetic vision of his native country.

"He believed that only through color could the Indian reality be captured: not only because the streets in India pulsate with the entire chromatic spectrum, but also, he declared, because the somberness of black is shunned by Indians, and the dark, guilt-ridden ethos of Western art is alien to their joyful vision of life." - New York Times

The influence that street photography had on elevating color photography to a respected practice was pivotal to its success. Street photography provided the perfect opportunity to use the 35 mm size loaded with color film, which helped develop a new visual essence in photography.

One of the most prominent street photographers who was part of the school of the New Yorkers was Saul Leiter. Most of his memorable work was done in the streets of the East Village, his neighborhood.

At that time, color was mostly used in advertising or travel magazines, in part due to its expensive costs of handling. Leiter earned a living from fashion photography. He published his work on Harper Bazaar among others, since those days his distinctive way of framing was already present and it bleeds from his fashion images to his personal work on the streets.

Saul Leiter Source Flickr

Edgy proportions in his framing are reserved for shapes that would take much of the space, forcing the viewer to focus on what was going on at the focal point of the image. This pushed the boundaries of photography at that time. Resulting in a sense of abstraction and through this provocative and innovative way of composing the pictures he was redesigning a new aesthetic.

Colors played a decisive role in his exquisite pictures where there is a heavy influence from painting. Laiter comfortably engaged with the language of painters, and one his biggest influence was Vermeer. Sometimes his works appear like collages where colors melt between the foreground middle and background. He told an anecdote during an interview about color in painting, which had always had an important part in art history, the story being that Michelangelo said to Tiziano "too much of it is frivolous".

Saul Leiter cover book source Flickr

He also noted that artists should not mind what is in vogue as there is always a constant fluctuation of styles and interests. Someone will be up, and some will be down, but all are in an orbit. Believe in what you do, what is important to you and break with the clichés of beauty standard. Adversity is not a limitation, but dive into problems, the solution might just be a turning point.

A distinctive part of Saul Leiter's body of work consists of the use of expired film. At the beginning this wasn't necessarily a choice but rather a necessity, as he was broke and expired film where cheaper. Once he saw that it worked for him and he liked the results he kept using expired film. He was experimenting quite a bit during his time, doing what he pleased, constantly in search of beauty.

Beauty is a chimera that many artists insatiably pursue. However, sometimes we are graced without realizing it.

Marie Cosindas was an artist that worked with Polaroid for her still life and portraits. She was a painter and designer and started to use the camera, mainly to record her designs for her paintings. However the medium turned out to be the perfect canvas for her work. She was among pioneer photographers who rebelled against the idea that photography should be only in black and white.

“The world in black and white did not totally satisfy me, and color seemed the way to add more feeling and mood to what I was already doing,”-Marie Cosindas

Pupil of Ansel Adams, she was recommended by him to Polaroid, who asked her to test their new instant color films. Since then she worked exclusively in color. She was quite experimental; playing with temperature and time during development, filters and long exposures. She achieved a unique style that many tried to reproduce but failed to achieve her rare nuance and balance.

Marie Cosindas Source Flickr

Not only experimental, Marie Cosindas elevated the use of instant photography, from snapshots of everyday life, into a canvas in their own rights. Carefully arranged opulent settings with lavish drapery matching equally famous and important people, and splendid arrangements of still life, are the subjects of her pictures.

Color is not an easy tool to master. It adds a level of complexity to the language of image making, where we must coordinate composition, color theory and the visual poetry of photography.

During the late 70s early 80s another crucial photographer, Nan Goldin, used colors in a completely innovative and meaningful way.

Her work was a turning point in the history of photography, for the substantial meaning that it carried. She elevated a sense of remembrance, to a permanent memory; where the shared experience of our life through photos coveted a deeper meaning. Her most famous book: "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" is a revolutionary book.

Cover of the book: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency Source Flickr

It was first designed to be an installation piece with slides and music, a 48 minute projection with 30 different songs. It is remarkable when we understand why one of the driving elements of her work was color.

In an interview in 2013 with The Museum of Contemporary Art of Los Angeles, referring to her most known work she said:

"The camera was an extension of my hand. I didn't move anything, to me it was a sin to move a beer bottle out of the way because to me it had to be exactly what it was [...] I didn't care about the gear, I did care about my film stock because I have a very saturated vision. I decided that it came because i didn't wear glasses for years and I can't really see without glasses so all I see is colors. I don't see the details on things" - Nan Goldin

As she keeps a photographic diary of her life, can we really imagine of separating events from color? When we are asked to recollect events from our past we tend to put the pieces together through colors. A red brick wall, a blue lagoon, a gray building…

Nan Goldin Source Flickr Rise and Monty on the Lounge Chair, NYC, 1988 by Nan Goldin. source Flickr

Nan Goldin has always been personally interested with honesty rather than with technically good photography, and color has never stopped playing a pivotal role in her work. In her book Eden and After where the subjects of her work are children, that conversation about honesty is powerful in every image. It explores how children see and understand the world in an honest way.

She considers books a great medium for photos and prints in good quantity can be as intense as looking at a book. Even though the disappearance of Cibachrome (Ilfordchrome) has made printing a picture somewhat a different experience.

Color will always have a decisive role when you implement it in your photography. It starts at the moment you decide to go out and shoot. Being aware of its potential and using it in your favor will take you a long way.

Who are your favorite photographers who use color? Share your thought in the comments below.

written by eparrino on 2022-07-24 #culture #color #colour #art-history #fine-art #nan-goldin #saul-leiter #early-color-photography #in-depth #raghubir-singh #marie-cosindas


  1. lomodesbro
    lomodesbro ·

    J. H Lartigue's Autochromes,Harry Callahan and Joel Meyerowitz come to mind

  2. jess_spd_
    jess_spd_ ·

    Very good🤩

  3. eparrino
    eparrino ·

    @lomodesbro Yeah the early photographers who used colors where really fascinating. Joel Meyerowitz is a legend with color photography.

  4. untamedboy
    untamedboy ·


  5. guypinhas
    guypinhas ·

    Saul Leiter, William Eggleston and Helmut Newton are my fave for colors. Kodakchrome was such a legend of a film though but toxic af. There's an image I saw recently that captured color so well by @marcoyeti56

  6. herbert-4
    herbert-4 ·

    Lomography so needs to bring back Kodachrome 25 and processing!!! I read an article once that a well exposed and focused 35mm slide contained at least 80 megapixels of color and image information. Think about 6x9 cm...

  7. herroen
    herroen ·

    Ernst Haas is my favourite.

  8. crismiranda
    crismiranda ·

    Great article!

  9. eparrino
    eparrino ·

    @guypinhas Yeah, Unfortunately the development process was extremely toxic beside being complicated. Lovely photo you found from the community! @herroen I love his work as well! Definitely a master of color photography!

  10. eparrino
    eparrino ·

    @herbert-4 Yeah quite an insane amount of information in one tiny frame :) . The prints are also spectacular!

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