Before visiting the Capturing Colour exhibition , I did a little light background reading on the subject of colour photography. Rather swiftly, I remembered why Physics was not my strong point at school. However, the exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery chooses to dazzle rather than baffle, using photographs, projected films and video to help tell the story of the development of colour photography.
With these visual aids, the show draws a direct line from kaleidoscopic Victorian chromatropes, through the hand-painted trick films of George Méliès, to the daubs and scratches of Len Lye and on to the Technicolor pageantry of The Red Shoes, culminating with a look at handheld colour video technology from Flips to iPhones. Early cinema enthusiasts will enjoy the hand- and stencil-tinted films, including Méliès’s The Impossible Voyage, and the opportunity to see the cameras and projectors that produced the first colour films. The highlight of this part of the exhibition is the specially reconstructed Kinemacolor footage, which digitally resurrects beautifully crisp and vivid colour scenes from 1906.
The exhibition also has a local bent, as Brighton was home to several colour film pioneers, inlcuding William Friese Greene and George Albert Smith – and I couldn’t resist taking a wander to nearby 20 Middle Street afterwards to pay homage. A featured quote from the Brighton Herald in 1911 conveys the excitement of the public clamour for these emerging technologies:
When the public find that they can get the life of the world depicted for them in all the glowing colours of nature, they will inevitably urge for the extension of the process until the old black and white films are gradually replaced by these beautiful pictures in natural colour.
While this prediction, by and large, came true, ‘natural colour’ is a red herring. The latter part of the exhibition neatly casts doubt on the connection between colour photography and naturalism, by comparing images shot on different cameras of the same subject. The films featured here, from a hand-painted Serpentine dance filmed in the earliest days of the medium to all-dancing Hollywood spectaculars, provide exactly the kind of visual thrills that have pulled in cinema audiences for more than a century – the journey towards colour photography was a quest for beauty, not realism.
Capturing Colour is at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery until 20 March 2011. Admission is free and the show is accompanied by ‘Magic Box’ activities for children, and a series of seminars and other events.
With thanks to Frank and Yvette.