Film Farbe Fläche. Ästhetik des kolorierten Bildes im Kino 1895-1930

by Jelena Rakin

The first three decades of cinema history, prior to the advent of sound in the 1930s, were marked by incessant attempts to develop a color process viable for mass film production. This period was also marked by cultural shifts concerning color as a commodity and an aesthetic phenomenon. Against this backdrop, early color film was pursued in such diverse contexts deemed as ‘kitsch’ or the avant-garde.  

Though the processes for coloring black and white film stock—hand and stencil coloring, tinting and toning—had largely fallen out of use by the 1930s, they present a particularly interesting case study for the examination of color in the context of the aesthetic discourses of the time. Some of the questions they raise concern the culturally symbolic problems of ‘good taste’ and the valorization of mass production over artisanal and artistic production. Applied color in cinema presented a hybrid, interim model that combined different image generation practices—manual for the generation of color and automated for the reproduction of black and white photography. In particular, the practice of coloring with stencils (pochoir), exhibited a unique affinity to the artisanal mode of the production, since pochoir technique was adapted for film from the decorative and graphic arts. Many image compositions of this period that feature stencil coloring, such as De Mooiste waaiers ter wereld (1927), exhibit cinema’s proximity to the decorative image mode as practiced in the artisanal industries. 

De Mooiste waaiers ter wereld (FRA 1927, Anonymous). Credit: EYE Film Museum. Photographs of the tinted and stencil colored nitrate print by Olivia Kristina Stutz, ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors.

Applied color has a particular aesthetic quality that makes it appear almost as a superimposed layer, separate from the depicted content of the black and white image. Although color was generally welcomed as more attractive than black and white, its autonomous qualities often caused it to be perceived as a technical shortcoming in the context of film. Color film technology therefore strived to overcome the tension visible between different levels of the image. 

The appearance of aniline dyes around the turn of the century—mass-produced colorants also used for film—brought about commercial charts and sample albums of colored materials. They consolidated the status of color as an industrial commodity and were also published by film manufacturers. 

Pages from Film Farbe Fläche. Ästhetik des kolorierten Bildes im Kino 1895-1930 showing pre-tinted film stock. For these and other high-resolution images see also the entry on tinting on the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

Since color film was a more luxurious and expensive variant than black and white, its showcasing was strategically used. Films like Le Troubadour (1906), Les Tulipes (1907) and Amour d’esclave (1907) include single shots that simultaneously display all the colors used in film, as a form of a visual chromatic climax and attraction, arranged in such a way as to resemble a color chart or a palette. 

Print no. 1 of Amour d’esclave (FRA 1907, Albert Capellani). Credit: Library of Congress.
Photograph of the tinted and stencil colored nitrate film print by Barbara Flueckiger. 

The aesthetics of the color chart can also be identified on the temporal level of the projected tinted and toned monochromatic frames of a film strip, namely when the colors of a palette appear in a succession instead of within a single frame. Image compositions and color dramaturgies like these, showcasing a palette, illustrate the permeability of the visual principles of modern media aesthetics and commodity industries. As a technically reproduced medium, film offered a unique convergence of the two.

In many films, applied color becomes an almost auto-thematic or self-reflexive example of what in theories of image has been referred to as its dual character—an optical quality of the image that results in the perceiver’s tendency to oscillate between perception of the image content and the materiality of the color, between flatness and depth. From Edmund Husserl, Ernst Gombrich, Arthur C. Danto to Gottfried Boehm, philosophies of art have closely examined the relationship of the representation and of the representing matter in the image. The older of these models tend to argue that at a given moment one perceives either an image’s material or content, whereas the more recent theories argue for the simultaneity of their perception. The testing ground for these theories has primarily been painting that in the early twentieth century elevated color as a self-identical matter to its chief means of expression—meaning that color started to be used in its own right and not in service of primarily illustrating the drawn objects.  

Colored black and white silent cinema offers an even more intriguing and unique case study for this seminal category of the image aesthetics. The hybrid modes of production and strong intermedial affinities of early cinema invite examination beyond the ontological models of medium specificity and in favor of more heterogenous fields and understandings of technique, materiality and aesthetics. 

Dr. Jelena Rakin is a senior researcher and lecturer at the Film Studies Department of the University of Zurich


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Book cover of Film Farbe Fläche. Ästhetik des kolorierten Bildes im Kino 1895-1930 by Jelena Rakin

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