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Tátralomnic (Tatranská Lomnica), 1958. #51265 Photo: Fortepan / Gyula Nagy

The Color of All Colors

Writer Attila Bartis on Photos from the Fortepan Archive

Black and white are not colors, let’s leave it at that. Black-and-white is something completely different. Black-and-white is the darkness of a basement and raw, unaltered light; grief or peace, yin and yang, true or false, good and bad, in a better case, the gray-scale between the two poles; black-and-white is the realm of the color blind, and of those stubborn photographers who refuse to accept the fact long accepted by most: that had the first photo ever taken been in color, no one would have ever bothered to discover black-and-white photography for them.

Lake Balaton, 1950. #3391 Photo: Fortepan

But in the beginning was the black-and-white photo, and on the sixth day the color one was not yet anywhere near. It took generations and generations. It was created just when it was too late to simply forget about and dismiss the black-and-white one as a temporary bad solution. So, thank God, we have them both still today, although here we are only interested in the color one, more specifically, in the question: which color is the color of all colors in color photography.

Nagykanizsa High School No. 2. (today named after Dr. Ferenc Mező), 1964. #106516 Photo: Fortepan / József Hunyady

And this is not a question of taste, or of the fashion of the times; it is not decided either by rationality or by an insane mind. It is not even a question of numbers or quantity. It is decided by life. By pure existence.

No.18 Lotz Károly Street, Budapest, 1961. #92844 Photo: Fortepan / K G

And pure existence dictates that there is nothing—no love, no bloodshed, no party loyalty, no sexual attraction, no cascade of lava, no volunteer blood donor, no sunset, nothing in which there is life beating, or nothing that is at the brink of being devoured by non-existence but holds on to life tightly still—that you could easily picture without the color red.

A commercial sea vessel's funnel is about to be loaded at the Hungarian Shipyards and Crane Factory (Hungarian: Magyar Hajó- és Darugyár; MHD) Angyalföld Division, in 1962. #39620 Photo: Fortepan / Angyalföldi Local History Archive

Whether our theme is a conveyor belt in a factory, a mailbox on the corner of a street, a car paid for in installments, a regime of terror, or anything else, it will be the color red that will stop us for a second. Has anyone seen a dangerous ideology that lacked any redness? A traditional folk dance club? Or a load of soft drinks, a languid gypsy woman, or a heady field of red poppies without red?

Whether it is a brothel or a fusillade, it makes no difference. Even the blue of the sky and the green of the grass is only there to accentuate anything that is red.

The textile factory "Lőrinci Fonó" on Gyömrői Road, Budapest, in 1973. #190960 Photo: Fortepan / Zoltán Szalay

Out of all the seas, it was the red one that the Lord chose to part. And the Lord really could have chosen any sea to part. From the apple of Eve to the whore of Babylon, from the burning bush to Christ’s wound, it was almost all red. Even the rose petals in Pilate’s hand wash.

And, though we knew nothing about color consciousness back then, still, even the first cave paintings were done with red. The next planet to us, where life could almost happen, is red; October was red and so was its flag, the Forbidden City is red and Rome was burning in red flames, though that is not so surprising: everything burned with red flames, from the library of Alexandria to the bonfire of books in Berlin, even my neighbor’s barn.

But who would have thought that all hierarchies were built on redness? That not only would the triumphant officers of the Roman legion paint their bodies red after a good massacre but the higher their testosterone level prompted by a situation, the more red the redness on some alpha male monkeys’ face turns.

Notices on the wall of the corner building at Március 15. (Eskü) Square and Belgrád (Ferenc József) Wharf, Budapest, in 1944. #40895 Photo: Fortepan / Károly Ember, Dr.

And so far we haven’t considered anything outside the narrow world created by God. But if we look into the wider, godless universe, we can only see how space devours nothingness and keeps reproducing itself only because for millions of years, the light of the galaxies has been shifting red.

I almost forgot to add: the color of shame and embarrassment is also red.

Existence in and of itself is red.

A rabbi is saluting the Hungarian Army entering the city of Beszterce (today Bistrița, Romania) after being reannexed to Hungary according to the Second Vienna Award, in Fa Street (strada Liviu Rebreanu), Sept. 8, 1940. In the background, the flags of the arbitrating countries, Nazi Germany and Italy. #8562 Photo: Fortepan

And what else would photography be about if not about existence? Those who do not believe this should look for the family photo album or the shoebox containing their mothers’ childhood and their grandfathers’ lives during wartime. With a hint of luck, they might also find a bit of forced labor in there as well. And some May Days. And some wilted wreathes on a grave, a polka-dotted ball, or basically, anything. I tell you, they will find much of that redness in moldy pieces sticking to each other, given that the family could afford the technical equipment or some friend of the family had not conformed to the black-and-white of photo amateurs and obsessed professionals.

János Kádár, General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) visiting District School no. 2 (today named after writer Géza Hegedűs) in district 13, no 47-49 Fiastyúk (Thälmann) Street, Budapest, on May 1st, 1985. Behind him, in a leather jacket, party secretary Gábor Deák. #41324 Photo: Fortepan / Angyalföld Local History Archive

Those who don’t even have a shoebox because it was gone during a refuse day, should search for it in the machine mind. They should enter in any language that they are looking for the most famous color photos in the world. The result will be red. Whether it is a photo by Fred Herzog, Saul Leiter, or McCurry that the engine lists as the first result, it doesn’t matter, because the second and the hundredth one will be red as well. If not all of them, 90 out of 100 for sure. Even René Burri, of whom no one would have thought that he would ever be willing to load a color film into his Leica, came up with his intense reds at a certain point of his career.

#44302 Photo: Fortepan

And if we exclude “famous” from our search, we will end up with the same result. Because there is no other result. It is pure existence transferred to each and every photograph, no matter the person behind the camera. It may only be a prohibition sign; it may only be someone’s lips, or a trolleybus, or a little girl at an altar, or Mark Twain’s bathrobe, but in the very first color photographs, something will be red.

Győrszentiván, Roman Catholic church. #42506 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Konok, Sr.

Whether it is cadmium or carmine, vermilion or burnt sienna, whether it is faded or covered by mold, almost every color photo reflects a wavelength between 625 and 740 nanometers. It is the wave of the least refracted white light, which stops the human gaze. It works the same way as in the case of sounds: any human being stops and listens, even during thunder, artillery fire, or in the middle of a noisy bar, when they hear the the most elemental sound of existence, the cry of a baby.

Text: Attila Bartis | Photo editor: István Virágvölgyi | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]

The Weekly Fortepan blog is a collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian article can be found at:

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