Colour in photograph: what’s its importance?

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Colour in photography plays a vital role to adding artistic elements. Throughout the development of cameras and photography technology, we only achieved obtaining multi-coloured photography in the later stages. Photography was invented by Nicéphore Niépce in 1822 and was then called Heliography. Niépce applied a coat of asphalt bitumen on glass or metal, hardening when exposed to light. The plate is then washed with oil and the hardened areas remain, forming the image. The first photograph in history is Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1827).

Colour photography was only created in 1895, drawing on James Clerk Maxwell’s colour additive theory. The colours in the photography were produced by adding various proportions of red, green, and blue. Later, American photographer Frederic Ives invented a photography system based on three colour-separation negatives using colour filters called Kromograms. Irish physicist John Joly improved the Kromogram system by combining all three colour filters by creating extremely fine lines of red, green, and blue onto glass plates, showing colours on the screen. However, both the Kromogram and Joly processes were too complex and expensive to carry out, hence failing to be accessible to the public.

Colours in photography are actively utilised in various ways to present the artist’s intention

The first commercially successful screening process was invented in 1907 by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, called Autochrome. Autochrome was developed with colour-dyed pulverised starch grains spread over a glass plate and with charcoal powder filling the gaps in between the grains. This process was soon widely utilised and soon other microscopic colour filters started to appear on the market using different geometric patterns using grains.

Often, colours are associated with certain emotions, such as cooler tones are being associated with melancholy and isolation and warmer colours representing energy and passion. Colours in photography are often similarly manipulated to create these certain effects. American photographer William Eggleston, considered to be the pioneer of colour photography, used colours to carry out poetic artist intentions. One of Eggleston’s famous works, Greenwood, Mississippi (1973), features a lightbulb on a red ceiling created by dye-transfer processing. The colour red is used in this photograph to create a sense of unsettling beauty with dimmed lighting and popping red colour. Eggleston described his photograph as if “it is like red blood that is wet on the wall”.

Colours can also be perceived differently in people’s eyes. For example, critics have said that Eggleston’s work is overly simple and boring just focusing on the portrayal of one single colour. In later times, such use of colours has been applied films, such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), creating a sense of unease using striking colours.

Colour in photography plays a vital role to adding artistic elements

Black and white (BNW) or monochrome photography deduced the element of diversity in colour in artistic expression. However, BNW photography often emphasized presenting other elements of photography such as form and contrast. Even though various colours, such as complementary and analogous colours can be used in photography to emphasize certain elements in photography, colours can also be distracting for human vision processing.

Japanese photographer Daidō Moriyama is well known for his BNW photography works. He once mentioned that “black-and-white photography has an erotic edge” which we can observe from his work. Often employing strange compositions, such as the extreme facial close-up in Eros or Something other than Eros (1969), or the bizarre viewpoint of an obscure alleyway in Yokosuka, A Japanese Town (1971). Such unusual compositional choices heighten the emotions portrayed by the artist’s choice of only using black and white, forcing the viewer to pay more attention to the forms, shapes, space, and textures of the photography.

Overall, colours in photography are actively utilised in various ways to present the artist’s intention. With the development of the use of colour in photography, we can see more possibilities in expression in this specific artistic medium.

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One thought on “Colour in photograph: what’s its importance?

  • Hello! I like works like this because I also create intriguing photos like this. Moreover, I often use valuable editors to help me improve the quality and color of my work, which I found here . This blog gives me functional tips that I often use.

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