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Seminar für Filmwissenschaft

Coloring Identities. The Cultural Construction of Color in Film, 1895-1940

Noemi Daugaard, M.A.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Barbara Flückiger

Before the standardization of mimetic colors in film, color cinematography was a realm of experiments, innovations and failures. Indeed, the period approximately between 1895 and 1940 is characterized by the development of innumerable color film technologies, as documented on the Timeline of Historical Film Colors. However, today, most of them remain unknown and uninvestigated, as, from the point of view of technological development, most film historiographical approaches have tended towards teleological models, focusing on national developments and ignoring the epistemological traditions of color cinematography, its societal context and the transnational exchanges involved. 
In contrast, this dissertation – embedded in the SNSF research project Film Colors. Technologies, Cultures, Institutions – focuses on how color film technology and society mutually constituted and influenced each other throughout the above-mentioned period. Importantly, it elaborates on how color film technology was put in the service of the creation of individual, social and national identities. Thus, the main research questions concern the epistemological roots of color film in scientific, theoretical and societal discourse, from discussions of the physical perception of color, to theories of color orders, debates on representation and notions of taste. Discursive traditions and normative guidelines, their connection to questions of identity and ideology will be examined in order to provide a deeper understanding not only of the foundations of color in film, but also of the mechanisms that influenced the distribution, marketing and reception of color film technology on a national, international and transnational scale.
Therefore, special attention is devoted to the various social spheres and cultural milieus involved in the negotiation of color cinematography. These social spheres and milieus need to be differentiated based on their approach to film and color as well as to their societal positions. For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century the so-called cinema of attraction was faced with both fascination and criticism, as bourgeois environments and moral institutions feared cinema to be detrimental to the broad uneducated masses, and soon started to seek ways to ennoble film. One crucial aspect is the negotiation of gendered consumer identities in relation to conventionalized color schemes, especially in the realm of make-up and fashion. Consequently, the fluctuating relationship joining color film technology, make-up, popular magazines, consumption, ideals of beauty and the construction of female identity is closely analyzed, especially in connection to discursive traditions rooted in the 19th century. Color theories, and especially color harmony, were combined with the idea of different types of human beings, a classification based on the color of skin, eyes and hair. While, on the one side, this categorization functioned as a marketing strategy, displaying how the right color combinations, in the form of make-up or clothing, could enhance every kind of female beauty, it was also employed to classify human beings in terms of their ethnicity and race and incorporated into discourses of national identity. As a matter of fact, whilst being an intrinsically transnational phenomenon, film technology and color cinematography in particular have been functionalized for nationalistic and propagandistic purposes from its very start. 
Methodologically, socio-constructivist approaches to technology as embodied by SCOT (the Social Construction of Technology) are combined with perspectives from the realm of cultural studies and applied to the field of cultural history of technology. As a result, processes of technological development are not understood as linear and chronological sequences, but as multidirectional networks in which negotiations of power, needs and solutions play a central role. Furthermore, the societal sphere is understood in the tradition of Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci as a hegemonic field in which power, identity and culture are constantly discursively (re-)negotiated. 
This dissertation investigates archival materials, such as patents, production files, internal reports and communications within and between the film industries in Germany, Italy, France, Great Britain and the United States. Additionally, trade and popular magazines as well as manuals and technical literature have been consulted so as to gather the popular and professional discourses circulating at the time. Therefore, this bottom-up and transnational approach contributes to challenging technological determinist views of the history of color film technology. At the same time, this project will embed technology in a solid societal fundament and display the complexity of technological innovation, not as a ‘history of men’, but as a history of structural, societal, cultural and industrial dynamics.