Colors of the past

Or the Lady in Red

Colors are a strange phenomenon to study. They seem so present, so attached to the immediate, so everywhere. It’s one of these thing everyone knows about and yet fails to properly define.

One day, in class, a teacher asked us to do so. It was interesting to see the several attempts made. I, for one, went straight for the scientific explanation. Colors are waves of electromagnetic radiation going through the spectrum of light, which the human eye can see. However, to my very rational mind’s surprise, people started giving subjective definitions of color.

It is undeniable, from that very example, that we do not perceive colors the same way. We do not define it unanimously. Moreover, we each charge each of them with symbols, cultural appropriation, political stuff… We don’t see the same thing when looking at a green apple.

A troubling example is blue. To us today, it is obvious the sea is blue. But if you check, for say, Joyce’s work, you may see he compares the sea to « green snot ». People in the Antiquity saw the sea green. In some kind of twisted chrono-centrism, some theories were developed in order to try and prove people didn’t see the blue color. They were all dismissed.

The thing was, blue was an expansive pigment to get at the time. Plus, it was heavily tied to the barbaric attacks coming from the north. It was said the attackers would paint their faces blue (as they had woad – isatis tinctoria in Latin). Still, the process was expensive and long. So pretty much everyone in Europe stuck to the white, red and black tryptic.

The same thing happened to color photography.

See for yourself. I stumbled upon these pictures made at the start of the century.


Japan, 1926, by Roger Dumas


Japan, 1926, by Roger Dumas

Now, you may think at first they were color-treated afterwards. But compare with these photographies, who indeed were hand-colored.


The Asakusa Park Tokyo, 1922


Hanayashiki of Asakusa at Tokyo, 1907 – 1918

We tend to think today that colored photography was invented during the second half of the XXth, when it was in fact available as soon as 1907, with a cheap and easy-to-use process called autochrome, invented by the brothers Lumière.

Now, look at this photo, made by the photograph Mervyn O’Gorman in 1913. It is also a strange story.


Lulworth Cove, Dorset, 1913, by Mervyn O’Gorman

For a long time, people tried to know more about the blond girl, also because those clichés are among the oldest owned by the Royal Photographic society. A call was even made by the Daily Mail in the UK to solve the mystery of “the lady in red“. In 2015, they claimed to have solved it, but the explanation brought on many more questions to my mind.

A retired engineer, Mr Riddle, recognized the Bevan family from other photos passed on to him by his late father, like this one.


Cristina’s sister, Anna, on a horse, 1913, Mervyn O’Gorman

He contacted museum curator Colin Harding, who explains the photographer, who was a family friend of the father, Edwyn Robert Bevan, took pictures of the young girl Cristina, then aged 16. He probably asked her to wear red, as it was caught on very well on film.

Cristina never married nor had children. She died aged 84. Harding’s conclusion was harsh: Ultimately, who Cristina was isn’t important. O’German’s portraits retain their timeless aspect.

While Cristina’s attitude on the pictures took a whole new meaning to my eyes, some guy was reducing her to the Lady in Red, to someone’s clichés. How strange is it that a young girl spends time alone at the beach with her father’s friend, in 1913?

The photograph was Irish. He married and left for World War one.

Cristina was, for a long time, forgotten. When uncovered, it became obvious people chose, up until the trichromatic Kodak innovation, to take pictures in black and white or sepia. This was up until the 1970’s. Cristina became a timeless symbol, stripped of any substance, baring only the color red, which you and me, may not perceive equally.

One of the reason autochrome was, for a long time, ignored, was a feeling some may have with color. It seems it may blind us to for, to lines, to a whole new world confined in contours and angles.

Add up to the many questions color rises up these ones: what if color was a debilitating visual trope? What do you see when there are no colors? Is color necessary? Do colors change, or does each individual change them? Is there a infinite yet defined array of colors somehow set by the universe, infinitely declined by our eyes?

Have we lost some of them in the past?

If we don’t, it’s because we’ve added subjective value to it. Take pink, for instance: isn’t it absurd that some men would be embarrassed by wearing pink as it is referred as a girl’s color?

Maybe we are all alone, confined to our individual prism of colors, when it’s not just about the lady in red, nor it is just about me or you.


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