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Leisure • Culture

The Past Was Not in Black and White

It’s a sign of how much photography influences our sense of what the past looked like that it’s hard not to imagine that substantial bits of history must have unfolded in black and white.

It’s almost impossible not to think of the 1920s as looking always as they do in all those images shot on orthochromatic film that we’ve seen without registering we ever did so, and where – because of this film type’s relative insensitivity to blue and contrasting sensitivity to red  – clear skies are pale, skin tones are powder white, lips appear uncommonly dark and nuances of green and yellow get lost in a morass of grey. Similarly, when we imagine someone taking their first steps, starting a job or having a picnic in the 1950s and early 1960s, we typically imagine the vibrant warm hues of Kodachrome, with its deep reds, rich greens and saturated yellows – just as when we summon up 1973 or 1981, we picture a neutral cool of Kodak’s then-dominant Ektachrome, with its high colour accuracy and sober blues and greens. Without knowing the first thing about photography, we understand a vast amount about the difference between a photograph of 1951 and one of 1967, one taken in 1974 and another in 1988 – and conjure up a world to match its characteristic tonal representations.

But of course, the greater and more extraordinary truth is that everything has always looked pretty much exactly as it does right now. When the Romans were complaining about the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211 CE), or the congregation were gathering for the consecration of Chartres Cathedral in 1260 or the Quianlong Emperor was meeting an embassy led by Lord Macartney in a room in the Imperial Palace in Beijing in 1793, the sky was every bit as complete in its colour spectrum as it is out of the window today, skin tones were identical to ours, bark and leaves were as crisp as those we know from the park. The world didn’t look as it does in the 1963 film ‘Cleopatra’ or on the cover of Kennedy’s Latin Primer or in miniatures of The Hours of Étienne Chevalier or in a painting of the ‘Imperial Banquet in the Garden of Ten Thousand Trees’ by Leng Mei. 

Along with this visual equivalence, we must envisage a far greater psychological similarity than we’re perhaps generally prepared to accept. Falling asleep, defecating, wiping one’s nose, forgiving a friend, quenching one’s thirst, regretting, sobbing, feasting, laughing, coming, dying – all would always have felt substantially as they do in our day. Despite all the differences that historians spend their careers dutifully informing us about, the past will always be far more like right now and our ancestors – even those wearing a chiton, eating swans or worshipping Baal – were far more like us than we like, or dare, to comprehend.

There’s a certain secret pleasure in picturing ourselves as in-the-know, modern, advanced, free of cobwebs and antiquarian prejudices, and in relegating all those who came before us to a faraway realm of sepias, dark browns, error and stupidity. We put a wall between the now and the armies of our strange or absurd ancestors, who missed things, followed insane ideologies and had to die. We are surely different, we see things clearly, there are no filters across our lenses. So long as we insist the past was entirely different, we don’t have to feel so sad for them – or as worried for ourselves. 

Yet of course, they too once stood on the summit of time. It was once very up to date to wear huipil or a cravat, aspire to own a slave or have four spouses, burn coal or memorise lines from the Visperad, wonder what would happen to King Pachacuti or speculate on whether the Senate would anoint Trajan emperor. 

They lived in a world as fresh and brightly coloured as ours – and were as muddled, deluded, mortal (and as worthy of pity and love) as we are.

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