What brings the most colour to your family history?
Is it particularly colourful ancestral characters or old street maps showing the very buildings, schools and factories in which your forebearers lived and toiled?
I think most people would agree that family heritage comes to life most in the details which historical sources give us about everyday lives and unusual moments.
Pictures also tell a vibrant story and give us an immediate connection with our ancestors as they stare out of the photographs at us.
I belong to Generation X, born between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. My birth decade, the 1970s, was perhaps the last decade in which both the past and the present were both still regularly presented in black and white. From black and white photographs, to black and white television, and black and white illustrated history books. For me that monochrome impression of history coloured, or rather, polarised the way I viewed the past as I grew up.
This has also had a funny after-effect which persists to this day. I constantly catch myself being bowled over by the visual impact of the vibrancy and colour of the past, evident in historical artefacts, buildings and settings. My favourite telescope on history is equally vivid, the fine art representations of people, place and things, which give us fascinating historical viewpoints on the past in colour. There are of course complications with the views of the past as represented in paintings, since we have to negotiate the subjective perspectives and intentions of the artist. Likewise within photography, there can also be a lens of nostalgia and aspiration which must be seen past when analysing family photos.
There is one collection of photographs which has thoroughly challenged my black and white historical blinkers, particularly with regards the late 19th and early part of the 20th century. This is the vast oeuvre of French philanthropist and financier Albert Kahn (1860-1940) and his associates. The Albert Kahn Museum in the suburbs of Paris, France, houses the Archives de la Planète (Archives of the Planet) with thousands of autochrome photographs. Autochrome was the first industrial process for true colour photography. Added to this the collection holds a vast number of stereoscopic photographs and film footage taken between 1909 and 1931 around Europe and Asia. These photographs were ground breaking for the way they captured “societies, environments and lifestyles” in colour. Depicting a pre-modern time in many countries which was lost with the advent of World War I. The photographs which present the destruction of World War I have a particular impact on the viewer, used to seeing war reportage in monochrome.
Within your family is there colour from the past which is still visible in the present? Perhaps you have treasured coloured family photos from the post-war period or precious decorative family artefacts and heirlooms which would have brought colour also to your ancestors’ lives and their homes. For example painted porcelain or pieces of clothing and embroidered tableware, or perhaps painted family portraits.
What can those colours tell you about your ancestors tastes and interests or the fashions of the time? Perhaps you only have a legacy of black and white photographs. Have you tried to imagine your favourite scenes in the colour? And what do the colours which you surround yourself say about you and your personality? Will you be leaving a colourful legacy in your wake?
Hannah Gill, historytrace
Links: Archives de la Planète, Albert-Kahn, musée et jardin départementaux Archives of the Planet, Albert Kahn Museum, Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris France, http://albert-kahn.hauts-de-seine.fr/archives-de-la-planete/presentation.
Historytrace can help you to explore your family’s colourful past, through analysis of historical sources, photographs and heirlooms to bring to life your family heritage across Europe. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family history on a deeper level.
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