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The color photographs of World War I

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2018

Color WWI

Color WWI

Color WWI

Color WWI

When World War I started, color photography was still in its experimental stage so most of the imagery of the war is in black and white. But a few photographers managed to capture color views the battlefield, military operations, and scenes of daily life during the conflict. You can check out a bunch of the WWI color photos here, here, here, and here. There’s even some color film footage from the war:

As I’ve written before, early color photography is a form of time travel, connecting long-ago events to the present.

Until recently, the color palette of history was black and white. The lack of color is sometimes so overpowering that it’s difficult to imagine from Matthew Brady’s photos what the Civil War looked like in real life. Even into the 1970s, press photos documenting the war in Vietnam were in B&W and the New York Times delivered its news exclusively in B&W until the 90s, running the first color photograph on the front page in 1997.

Which is why when color photos from an event or era set firmly in our B&W history are uncovered, the effect can be jarring. Color adds depth, presence, and modernity to photography; it’s easier for us to identify with the people in the pictures and to imagine ourselves in their surroundings.

Lots more early color photography in the archives.

Update: From 2006, a song called The War Was in Color by Carbon Leaf. Here are the first two stanzas:

I see you’ve found a box of my things:
Infantries, tanks and smoldering airplane wings
These old pictures are cool. Tell me some stories
Was it like the old war movies?
Sit down son. Let me fill you in

Where to begin? Let’s start with the end
This black and white photo don’t capture the skin
From the flash of a gun to a soldier who’s done
Trust me grandson
The war was in color

(thx, adam)