Polychrome people

May 9th, 2007 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Though it is Wednesday, I am now reading last Saturday’s newspaper supplements. The Financial Times columnist Harry Eyres reflects on the power of colour photography. Writing of the advent of colour television, Eyres says that it arrived in 1967, but it was 1970 before his family had a colour set.

1970! We still had a black and white portable as our only television until November 1990, I remember precisely because it was a month after our son was born. Admittedly, monochrome was a bit passé by then and the television licence people seemed to express increasing suspicion in their correspondence each year, the black and white licence being considerably cheaper than the colour.

My mother in law, who died last year, was very possessive of her black and white portable set. An avid fan of snooker, she would have been glued to the set over the past weeks watching the world championship that came to a conclusion on Monday evening. Once it was ten o’clock, she would switch off the colour set in her living room and retire to bed where the match would have been followed in monochrome. The precise shades of grey would tell her the difference between the green ball worth three points and the brown ball worth four.

The photographs of Harry Eyres’ childhood days were nearly all in black and white, except for the colour transparencies which would be projected on to the wall for collective viewing. Having the transparencies printed in more recent times, he speaks of “a colour epiphany”. Memories of his grandfather and of family occasions have come vividly to life, “the colour prints have brought about a startling restoration in my memory. Black and white may be better aesthetically, but emotionally colour wins hands down”.

A universe in colour is much more uncontrollable, much more anarchic, than one in shades of grey. I have a book of photographic portraits by Snowden where the contrast is strongly made. Photographing Garret Fitzgerald and Charles Haughey, the two dominant politicians in Ireland of the 1980s, Snowden portrays one in black and white and one in colour. Eyres’ contrast between aesthetics and emotions perhaps captures the difference between the protagonists; even a cursory knowledge of Irish politics would tell you who appears in colour!

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