Gender and Color: Pink in Black and White Photographs

Figure 1.--Here we see a black aznd white image of an early 20th century painted portrait. Notice how the bow looks white. This is how light-pink bows would show in period photographic portrairs. Click on the image to see the actual color of the boy's floppy bow.

Difficulties with Pink

One problem in assessing the use of color on HBC is that one of our primary sources of information is old photographs whiocvh until the 1970s are mostly black and white images. While we can guess about the color of garments, there is no way to be sure about the actusl color. Pink in fact can come in many shades. Light pinks will show up as white. Dark pink will show up as a grade shade that easily can be interpreted as a shade of blue. Thus to assess pink we need to rely on paintings, vintage clothing, catalog ad copy, and other sources. By looking at color paintings in black and white we can see how difficult it is to assess color from these images. We created a black and white version of the painting here to demonstrate this. Thus the HBC photographic archive is unfortunately not helpful in assessing the usage of pink in period clothing.

Photographic Process

'One important factor to consider when photographic images and color is the process used. Of course this informatioin is usually not available. Chronologhical trends, however, offer some insights.

Mid-19th century process

When judging the colors represented by early black and white photographs, you need to keep in mind that most 19th century photogaphy was done with a process that was sensitive only to blue (thru ultraviolate) light.

Late-19th century: orthochromatic film

In the late 19th century, orthochromatic film was introduced that was sensitive to green as well as blue light. Orthochromatic film was still insensitive to red light.

1920s: panchromatic film

Panchromatic film is sensitive to all visible light. It was introduced in the 1920s, although it didn't become the dominant medium until the 1940s.

Flag and Skin-tone Images

National flags

Images with national flags are especially useful in assessing how color registers in black and white. This is because unlike clothes, the colors of flags are known and often relatively consistent in shade and intensity. If you look at a photograph of an American (British or French) flag made with the earlier photogrphic priocesses, the red stripes will look black while the blue field behind the stars will look much lighter than you would expect.

Skin-tone images

The old film processes also affected skin tones. Have you noticed how dark Native Americans and Chinese appear in old photographs? In photographs of people, blue eyes came out looking extremely light, while people with medium-toned skin such as Chinese and American Indians photographed as if they had very dark skin.

Color Channels

You can see versions of the portrait here that show only the red, green, and blue channels, as well as simulations of what orthochromatic film would see.

Blue channel

The blue-channel image simulates what most 19th-century photographic materials would have seen. Notice how the blue-channel image shows the boy's blue eyes as being very light, while his red hair and pink skin are darkened.

Green channel

Blue-Green channel (orthochromatic film)

The blue-green channel replicated how the orthochromatic film used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Red channel

All channels (panchromatic film)

The image seen here (figure 1) is how modern panchromastic film would relicate the colors in grey scale.


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Created: 4:21 PM 10/27/2004
Last updated: 7:12 PM 10/27/2004