Agfa(color) goes Global. The Development of the Subtractive Multilayer Film Strip during the Cold War

Josephine Diecke, M.A.
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Barbara Flueckiger

The dominant color film technology during the period of the so-called ‘Cold War’ is the chromogenic multilayer film strip. Research in that field has mainly focused on products from capitalist countries such as Kodak and Fuji by downsizing East German Agfa’s role because of its growing fallback in terms of ‘quality’. How is the resulting constant comparison and interdependency in a global context reflected in Agfacolor’s material production and cultural circulation? This dissertation project in the framework of the SNSF project Film Colors. Technologies, Culture, Institutions aims to explore the transnational contexts in which the subtractive multilayer film strip evolved and circulated since its first commercial introduction with Kodachrome and Agfacolor in the middle of the 1930s, until its status as a standard for color films in the late 1980s. The central questions are: Which social needs, expectations and motivations have accelerated or inhibited the introduction and distribution of the chromogenic monopack, and in which ways have color film technologies shaped society respectively? What kind of discursive practices have fostered and accompanied selected moments of cultural and technological identity formation during the period of the so-called ‘Cold War’?

The key opposing actors during this period were the US-American Eastman Kodak and the German Agfa. Their inventions and innovations in the areas of color components, emulsions and sensitizers had a significant impact on other international companies with respect to their development of new products by applying Agfa and Kodak’s formulas. The institutions never operated in a vacuum but instead took advantage of ideas and inspirations from the outside. Among them were Japanese companies such as Konishiroku Photo Industry Co., Ltd./Konica and Fujifilm Holdings Corporation, the American Ansco/GAF, the Italian Ferrania/3M, the Soviet Svema, the German-Belgian Agfa-Gevaert and the East German Filmfabrik Wolfen/ORWO. All these manufacturers of color film are integrated in the research’s framework, however with a special focus on the transnational innovation and circulation of the first negative-positive color film process Agfacolor and its derivatives such as Fujicolor, Ansco Color, Ferraniacolor and Orwocolor.

The theoretical tradition of my project is based on the New Film History and the research interests of Media Archaeology. Both approach film and media history with multifaceted tools and methodologies. Following their examples, I am combining the fields of interest of the Science and Technology Studies (STS), the cultural history of technology, the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) as well as the theory of hegemony and discourse analysis of the Cultural Studies according to Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault by tying in with the interrelationship of power, identity and culture in the diachronic and synchronous history of the subtractive multilayer film strip. The research is thus informed by a combination of epistemological genealogies of color film technologies (diachronic) on the one hand, and of their sociopolitical and historico-cultural contextualization (synchronous) on the other hand. Technical journals, popular film and fashion magazines as well as feature and amateur films are to be analyzed as (audio)visual sources with regard to their accompanying discursive practices. The period of the Cold War is the political and historical framework in which ideological and, especially, civic trends, discourses and hegemonies were being negotiated. Also taken into account are subcultural phenomena in the same way as persisting debates about role models and class hierarchies. Against this background, the question arises as to which kinds of discursive practices have shaped selected processes of identity formation within or with the help of chromogenic color films, and how colors in general and single color schemes in particular have been discussed at a certain time. Besides the focus on historically fixed discourses and identities, my dissertation specifically highlights international and transnational dynamics of observation and exchange, affecting technological, institutional and cultural developments. The aim is to broaden the examination of a cultural context from an enclosed national concept to a multinational network with several nodes and paths of knowledge. Discussing the notions of someone’s and something’s ‘own’ and ‘foreign’ characteristics is consequently a fundamental part of my research. Finally, the result is not a chronological juxtaposition of teleological and linear histories of innovation, but the contextualization of the cultural techniques accompanying the subtractive multilayer process Agfacolor and its successor Orwocolor within specific historical social frameworks.

The first part of my dissertation distinguishes between three different phases characterizing the product’s life cycle: formation (1935-1945), diffusion (1945-1964) and standardization (1964-1990). While a high number of the most popular historiographies of color film technologies highlight genius-like inventions and contributions provided by single persons or companies, they leave out the networks and societal spheres surrounding these crucial steps. Therefore, I am going to address the broader contexts in which the chromogenic monopack Agfacolor is embedded: from the comparison with other color and black-and-white film technologies during the phase of formation, over the numerous processes of individualization in the Western cultures of the 1950s and 1960s until its inclusion into environmental debates of silver recycling and long-term preservation in the 1970s and 1980s. By means of a comparative approach, I am drawing special attention to the interdependency between color film technology and their users, even more so by focusing on the material conditions of the chromogenic process as a kind of ‘package solution’ for professional as well as amateur uses in the age of mass and consumer culture. Finally, against the backdrop of standardized color film manufacturing, I am following the discourse of ‘quality’ to break down the main power struggles relying on this supposedly neutral category. The hypothesis is that none of these chromogenic processes could have been developed without a moment in which scientific or cultural knowledge was transferred from one individual or social group to another. Concrete evidences regarding the transfer of knowledge in the realm of color film technology are to be found in official as well as confidential research records and political orders. In addition to these primary source materials, other film and non-film sources must be consulted in order to decipher the societal and cultural environment of the historical period concerned.