It used to be simple; photographs had a colour palette that went from black through the grays to white. Variations, such as the albumen photograph ranged from dark brown to light cream, and cyano-types went from an almost black marine blue to the palest of blue/white. However, throughout the history of the medium, most photographs were what we would call black and white.
Experimentation with colour started almost as early as photographs were stabilized on paper or metal. In the beginning, colour was simply applied with a brush to the black and white image. Early portraits got a healthy complexion with pink lips and rouged cheeks at the hands of the skilled touch-up artist. Later, a variety of methods were developed to show colour in photographs.
Unfortunately, most colour methods have not stood up well to the passing of time. Most have faded, colour-shifted, so that faces have turned from healthy to very sickly, and clothes, grass and trees turned to colours that are brown and muddy. Most older, colour photographs have simply lost their brightness and sharpness. Just have a look at your own family albums…. they look a little muddy and have that ‘old’ look to them, right?
I know of only two methods that are truly stable. One, the dye-transfer process, is no longer used because it became too expensive. Some great photographs were made using this method, but sadly no more. Ernest Hass was maybe the most consistent user of this technology. The second, is the Fresson process. Fresson printing a multi-step laying down of individual colour layers and is still done today at a single family owned lab in France. The closely guarded secret process has not changed in nearly a century. Sheila Metzner is a strong proponent of this printing method, as is the interesting French photographer Bernard Plossu.
Every so many months new inks are developed for new generations of digital printers, new and improved papers are developed. For many years, dating back to the 1940s, Kodak and Fuji went through many, many generations of ‘new and improved’, as have the print, ink and paper manufacturers that produce both the high-end commercial jobs, and the home-use printer you have sitting on the corner of your desk. But is it stable?
A 740 page whopper of a book, still regarded as something of a bible in colour photography, “The Permanence and Care of Colour Photographs” by Henry Wilhelm, is now more than 20 years old. But, it is still often referred to by those that are interested in colour photography. The book dives deep into 20 years of extensive research into the colour medium in photography and how it ages.
Published in 1993, this book describes in great detail all that has gone wrong over the years in colour photography, promises that were broken by suppliers of film and paper, only to be renewed with the next generation of printing technology. Perhaps a little surprising, Wilhelm, ever the optimist, too concludes that nirvana is imminent with new processes being proposed and new in-organic inks arriving on the scene that will change everything.
I am not sure what to believe. I have 5 colour photographs in my collection; One Fresson, two dye-transfer prints, two prints by the Saul Leiter of Canada, Fred Herzog. The latter two are modern digital prints. Don’t ask me what inks are used, or even what paper, but I have a document from the gallery that guarantees the images. The photographer, Fred Herzog is more than 90 years old and the gallery almost acts for him, so I am comfortable with my ability to replace my two images.
But, what if you are considering buying a terrific colour photograph? If it feels right, looks right and meets all the critical considerations that are important to you, as a collector, the obvious answer is to recommend that you buy the photograph. Love it. Enjoy it, but be aware…
Photography collectors have long suffered from chromophobia – the fear of colour. Many have seen fabulous work simply fade, colour shift, or virtually disappear in front of their eyes and are understandably cautious. But that may be the past. You, the modern day collector with no baggage, no prior catastrophes, may fell ready to take on the endless possibilities that colour represents.
Personally, I would make sure that when you buy colour work, the artist (even if you buy through a gallery) guarantees the work and will offer nothing less than a full refund or a replacement print, in the event of a small or epic failure. And do get this in writing signed by the artist, in the event the gallery where you bought the work should fall on hard times and disappear.
I only make black and white photographs, so thankfully have much less to worry about!
See more on my website: harbel.com