I will spend hours poring over old photos, pixel by pixel, examining long dead faces for clues and for meaning. The mystery of a world drawn starkly in black and white, a moment in time, a frozen second captured, has been a source of fascination to me since childhood.
For the first half of the 20th century, the world can be seen almost entirely in black and white. Oh, there were silver screen moments of sheer Technicolor glory, of course. Who could forget the dramatic colour shift when Dorothy Gale of Kansas opened the door in Oz?
But the rest of the world was still drawn in two colours. Photo albums were hardback scrapbooks crammed full of little square printed memories. Generations of nearly forgotten relatives paused in the course of their lives for snapshots, now faded, creased. Our immigrant grandparents posed for portraits in borrowed wedding clothes, their faces frozen and unsmiling for all eternity. Were they happy? I wonder.
In our monochrome past, the unsteady light of propaganda newsreels flickered black and white images of presidents and dictators to astonished masses the world over. Thousands of grey soldiers goose-stepped in fast motion across the screen; black bombs dropped out of leaden skies. These were dark times, clearly. But though we all knew blood was red in real life, few imagined that war could be fought in colour.
The television age crept upon us in the 50s, and other people’s lives – real and imaginary – were painted in varying shades of grey. A moon-faced Ralph Kramden threatened Alice with his fist and everybody laughed. During the “honeymoon” period of early TV, Political Incorrectness bunked with Moral Condescension and nobody batted an eyelash. So long as Father knew best and all little boys were like The Beaver, freckle-faced half pints who learned their moral lesson at the end of the day, threatening to smash your wife’s face in was, apparently, A-OK.
Somehow, I don’t think Ralph would have got many laughs in the age of colour.
With the arrival of colour TV, monochrome began its long and slow descent into relative obscurity, revived for film noir and formal portraiture, newspapers and such. But by and large, our picture-mad world seemed bent on seeing things as they actually were, in colour.
I have always thought it fitting that the very decade fully opened up to the world of colour was the 60s, the decade of flower power, civil rights and rock and roll, yes. Truthfully, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In would have lost some of its edge if it had not been filmed in colour. We would have missed out on Goldie Hawn’s blue eyes. And her bikinis.
The monochromatic newsreels were a thing of the past, replaced by the evening news that showed the horrors of Vietnam in all its bloody glory. And how fitting that the issue of “colour” in America was at long, long last brought sharply into relief, the elephant in the corner that needed shooting, the ugly racist boil that needed lancing before the healing could begin.
In this new age of colour, we were no longer black and white. We were brown and tan, colors that stood side by side in the Crayola box. Why had we not seen it before?
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