William Eggleston

Editorial A brief History of Color Photography

© William Eggleston

“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.” – Oscar Wilde


─── Josh Bright, September 1, 2020

Since the inception of the medium, photographers have yearned to colorize their monochrome images, with the hand painting of printed photographs a widely used method during the 19th century.

Tartan Ribbon, 1861 photograph by Thomas Sutton & James Clerk Maxwell
Tartan Ribbon, 1861 © Thomas Sutton/James Clerk Maxwell


The invention of color photography has been a much-debated topic, with Levi Hill, an American Baptist Pastor, claiming to have invented a method as early as 1851.

Others consider the depiction of a tartan ribbon taken some ten years later, to be the prototype. Captured by Thomas Sutton (the inventor of the single-lens reflex camera) he used an additive-color method invented by Scottish mathematical physicist James Clerk Maxwell, whilst it was also around this time that inventor Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron was formulating a similar technique, based on the three color-theory which remains at the heart of printing today.

Isola di Ponza, Paesaggio Italiano, 1986 © Luigi Ghirri
Isola di Ponza, Paesaggio Italiano, 1986 © Luigi Ghirri


His method involved the glass filters coated in dyed grains of potato starch, and would form the foundations for subsequent developments, including the
Autochrome, unveiled in 1907 by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, the inventors of the Cinématographe. The Autochrome process allowed for the capture of full color images with a realism that surpassed that of its predecessors, and it quickly became the dominant form of color photography. However, it was slow and cumbersome, requiring lengthy exposures which made the capture of moving images impossible

Staithes Harbor, 1915 (Autochrome Image) © John Cimon Warburg/Getty Images.
Staithes Harbor, 1915 (Autochrome Image) © John Cimon Warburg/Getty Images.


In 1936, Kodak revolutionized color photography with the release of their now legendary Kodachrome. A color-reversal film, it allowed for the capture of highly detailed imagery in full, expressive, chromaticity, making it extremely popular amongst commercial photographers in the latter half of the twentieth century. However, purveyors of more ‘serious’ styles, such as photojournalism, would largely continue to reject the allure of color imagery, regarding it as ostentatious, lacking in authenticity, and as a hindrance in their ongoing battle for their medium to be considered a genuine art form.

New York, 1952 photograph by Ernst Haas © Estate of Ernst Haas.
NY, 1952 © Estate of Ernst Haas


One exception was Austrian
Ernst Haas, who, though not always recognized as such, was at the forefront of the early color movement and helped set the foundation for those who followed. Initially working exclusively in black and white, his foray into chromatic imagery began with the purchase of his first Leica, shortly after his inauguration into the Magnum Agency in 1949.

A multi-talented photographer, his work traversed both commercial (he was the first to photograph the ‘Malboro Man’) and photojournalism, though it is in his street photography where his use of color is most profound. Images of a Magic City, a series of color photos of New York, is an excellent example of his virtuosity. His use of unusual angles, slow-shutter speed, and reflections, give a partially abstract, sepia washed portrait of the city which would later become his home, and reflect Haas’ free-spirited personality, whilst also displaying the artistic capabilities of the medium.

Color photography, Navajo Nation, Arizona 1970 photograph by Ernst Haas © Estate of Ernst Haas
Navajo Nation, Arizona 1970 © Estate of Ernst Haas
New York, 1952 photograph by Ernst Haas © Estate of Ernst Haas
NY, 1952 © Estate of Ernst Haas
New York, 1952 photograph by Ernst Haas © Estate of Ernst Haas
NY, 1956 © Estate of Ernst Haas

Saul Leiter, a contemporary of Haas, was another important early colorist, his portrayals of the streets surrounding his Manhattan home during the 50s and 60s, are truly extraordinary, and exemplify the artistic approach for which he later became renowned.

He possessed a painter’s eye for color, and, like Haas, flirted with the abstract, using angles, compression, and often, shooting through windows whose surfaces were invariably glazed by steam, rain, or reflections. However, in contrast to the dynamism inherent in Haas’ New York, Leiter sought out rare moments of serenity, an approach which mirrored his own reticence, though it would be decades before he would garner the recognition he so thoroughly deserved.

Color photography, Taxi, New York, USA, 1957 photograph by Saul Leiter
Taxi, New York 1957 © Saul Leiter Foundation
Snow, New York, 1960 © Saul Leiter Foundation
Snow, New York, 1960 © Saul Leiter Foundation
Window - New York, 1957 © Saul Leiter Foundation
Window - New York, 1957 © Saul Leiter Foundation


It is
William Eggleston, who is widely regarded as the most important figure in color photography. Deemed the father of what is now known as the American color movement, his contributions to the acceptance of the style cannot be overstated, though, without his lesser-known friend and contemporary William Christenberry, the story may have been vastly different.

From the mid-1950s, Christenberry used his Kodak Brownie box camera to capture vernacular, and often haunting images of the landscapes and dilapidated structures of his home state of Alabama, with consideration for form and color informed by his multidisciplinary background.

Color photography, Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1974 © William Christenberry
Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1974 © William Christenberry
TB Hicks' Store (Detail), Newbern, Alabama , 1991 © William Christenberry
TB Hicks' Store (Detail), Newbern, Alabama , 1991 © William Christenberry


He met fellow southerner Eggleston in the early 1960s and the pair quickly became close friends. At the time, Eggleston was working exclusively in black and white, inspired by the great humanists Robert Frank and Henri Cartier Bresson, as well as the vernacular, depression-era images of Walker Evans. But, by the mid-1960s, and due largely to Christenberry’s influence, he began experimenting with color, a decision which would change the medium forever.

His home state of Tennessee (where he remains to this day) was, almost exclusively his focus, though, in spite of his obvious connection to the area, his approach deliberately avoided narrative.

Color photography, Untitled, 1971 photograph by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust
Untitled, 1971 © Eggleston Artistic Trust
Untitled, c.1983-1986 photograph by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust
Untitled, c.1983-1986 © Eggleston Artistic Trust
Untitled, from The Democratic Forest, 1983-1986 photograph by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust
Untitled, from The Democratic Forest, 1983-1986 © Eggleston Artistic Trust


William Eggleston possessed the extraordinary ability to transform the seemingly mundane: an empty table in a diner; a rusty bicycle discarded on a sidewalk; into enchanting and, at times surreal tinctured snapshots of rapidly modernising suburban life in the deep south.

In the early 70s, he began experimenting with dye-transfer printing, a process that afforded the user control over the luminosity of color. This allowed Eggleston to enhance the already saturated tones which pervaded his images, thus making them even more striking; his 1973 depiction of a lone lightbulb set against a blood-red ceiling was his first creation using the process, and is undoubtedly one of his most iconic, permeating with a palpable sense of foreboding that epitomizes his anomalous talent.

Color photography, Untitled, 1973 photograph by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust
Untitled, 1973 © Eggleston Artistic Trust


Simultaneously a group of free-thinking photographers was themselves exploring color, and though perhaps they were both influenced and emboldened by Eggleston, they were key figures in the color movement in their own right.

Stephen Shore is a notable example, his portrayals of ordinary life in 70s America captured the zeitgeist of the period. Likewise Joel Meyrowtiz, who captured the exquisite and ever-changing complexion of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in a series of portraits which were released in the photobook Cape Light in 1979, now regarded as one of the most influential of the twentieth century.

Landscape Photography swimmers in Yosemite National Park, California, USA Stephen Shore
Yosemite National Park, California, USA 1979 © Stephen Shore
Cape Light, Cape Cod, USA 1979 © Joel Meyrowtiz
Cape Light, Cape Cod, USA 1979 © Joel Meyrowtiz


Another key figure of the American color movement was
Helen Levitt: her candid depictions of 1970s New York, capture the intricacies of daily life and display an understanding of color to rival that of her more famous male contemporaries.

By the turn of the 1980s the dominance of monochrome had waned, and a new wave of influential color photographers emerged, notably Joel Sternfield and Martin Parr.

Boy with Bubble, 1972 photograph by Helen Levitt
Boy with Bubble, 1972 © Helen Levitt
New Brighton UK From 'The Last Resort' , 1983-85 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
New Brighton, UK 1983-85 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Color photography, Mclean, Virginia, December 1978 - From American Prospects © Joel Sternfield
Mclean, Virginia, December 1978 - From American Prospects © Joel Sternfield


Today the dominance of color photography is such that it is hard to envisage the medium without it. Its undeniable power is perhaps articulated most effectively by one of its earliest champions, Ernst Haas:

“Color is joy. One does not think of joy. One is carried by it”.


All images © their respective owners