“The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema” An Interview with Joshua Yumibe

by Marina Butt

Twenty years on from the trailblazing event ‘Disorderly Order: Colours in Silent Film,’ this year’s ‘The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema’ conference at EYE brought together contemporary studies focused on early colour practices in film. The past two decades have seen a rise in sustained studies on the subject and last month’s conference showcased some of the key academic and archival debates in the field. Perhaps as a testament to the pervasiveness of early colour, the conference brought together studies from a range of disciplines seeking to challenge prevailing ideas about its use (or the perceived lack thereof) during the silent era.

A panel at

A panel at “The Colour Fantastic”

It is precisely this kind of interdisciplinary approach that makes Dr. Joshua Yumibe and his panel’s research project ‘Colour in the 1920s: Cinema and its Intermedial Contexts’ an invaluable contribution to both the conference and the growing field of early colour studies.

‘Colour in the 1920s: Cinema and its Intermedial Contexts’ is a collaborative project between The University of St. Andrews, Bristol University, and Michigan State University; funded by the Leverhulme Fund. The primary objective of this research project is to investigate some of the key domains of colour expression in both commercial and experimental cinema of the 1920s. Using these cinematic case studies as a galvanizing focus, the project aims to examine the wider uses of colour in other arts and media of the time, such as theatre, architecture, fashion, print, and commercial advertising.

Dr. Joshua Yumibe is also the author of the 2012 monograph Moving Colour, Early Film, Mass Culture and Modernism (Rutgers University Press), which draws on a range of original archival materials from the pre-1912 period of cinema. His work is widely regarded as a significant contribution to the field of early cinema studies; particularly filling the gap in knowledge of applied colour in early cinema. “The Colour Fantastic” conference also saw the release of his new book, Fantasia of Colour in Early Cinema (University of Amsterdam Press). Co-authored by Giovanna Fossati, Tom Gunning, and Jonathan Rosen, this new publication presents a remarkable anthology of early tinting, toning, and stencil practices. Joshua is also co-director of the prolific Davide Turconi collection of film fragments currently housed at The George Eastman House. In 2012, together with Paolo Cherchi Usai, Joshua supervised the digitization of the entire collection of fragments, making it available online.

The UvA student chapter of AMIA caught up with Joshua at The Colour Fantastic to talk about his current research, his efforts with the Turconi collection, and issues of access in the digital age!

AMIA-UvA: Your current research focuses on this very powerful and pervasive interest in colour in the 1920s. Your work suggests that whilst early colour was subject to moral outrage by some, others saw it as possessing a kind of utopian potential, fit for the jazz age. It’s a big topic but could you begin by saying something about the way in which colour was received at that time as well as the divisions it caused?


Dr Joshua Yumibe at “The Colour Fantastic” EYE, Amsterdam

JY: Certainly. It is a big topic but it gets particular in the 1920s. I suppose a useful backdrop to this is David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia  (The University of Chicago Press). It offers a useful framework to think about both chromophobia and chromophilia in Western culture, although it’s not limited to Western culture. There are people who love colour, people who are afraid of colour, people who celebrate it. Colour has always been associated with lots of different types of things. Going back to the Greeks, the people who made colour were also the chemists making drugs, so there are all of these different associations with what colour is and how it is made.

Going into the 1920s these debates get particular in the ways in which – after World War One – there was a real explosion of colour. After the war, the US and European industry rebooted. Before that, Germany had very much dominated the colouring trade because they had the most developed chemical industry and patents for colour, but they lost a lot of that during war reparations. That led to a global expansion of the industry. All the ways in which the various aniline hues expanded across media and film, in particular, speaks to the ways in which mass production and consumption accelerated during that decade. But you also get these reactions against the problems of the jazz age and all its associations; against colour and what it stands for, which in many ways was a kind of gendered and feminized mass culture that was emerging. There are all kinds of ways in which colour is tied in with the female body (which has long been the case in western culture) and the exotic body, and also to mass consumption and how that gets gendered in the 1920s. There becomes a kind of new discourse of masculinity; the ways in which masculinity has been problematicised by this emerging culture which is tied in with colour and getting rid of colour.

AMIA-UvA: Definitely. It’s interesting that you mention this western perspective on colour. As your work largely focuses on European and US culture of the 1920s, it also reveals the wider questions about colour as culturally determined and contained. During your research, did you and your team encounter many examples of early colour practices from non-western countries? Was colour the source of such divisiveness in other countries?

JY: Bits and pieces but not a lot. I haven’t done the kind of research you need to tackle that. There are language issues of course. My language skills aren’t wide enough to be able to read in the ways in which I think that research would need to happen. But I would love to see research in India or Japan about how colour was received or not received in those places. The Middle East as well. It would be spectacular to look at the kinds of films in circulation in the 1920s and to look at the newspaper and trade press reactions. So on the one hand, ‘No’ I don’t know a lot but I think it’s ripe for this kind of research, which could – importantly – open up really great material.

I do know from speaking to a Japanese film scholar, Micheal Raine, that there was a real interest in colour in Japan in the 1920s. He was telling me about a company that set itself up as Pathé Freres in Japan. They weren’t connected to Pathé Freres but they were specifically interested in the colouring developments that Pathé did and they tried to copy and emulate them in certain ways.

AMIA-UvA: As we can really only study what we have access to and so much of silent cinema (especially in non-western countries) is considered lost, do you think this situation is inevitable? Or do you think it is symptomatic of a wider problem of film history being a largely Anglo-centric discipline?

JY: I think it’s indicative of problems in scholarship and the kind of western-centric ways in which we think. But I also think it’s an opportunity to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and beyond your expertise within certain areas. As I said, to do the kind of close analysis of some of these issues you need real language skills, which speaks to the necessity of maintaining language education in higher education. Given today’s context of globalization and transnational flows, I think it’s ever more vital that people can not only go global and look at things but also really get the grounding in the languages necessary to do that.

Thinking about archival issues in a digital era, I would also say there’s a way in which the digital access to so much material is opening up all kinds of new ways of doing research. But also the digital archives that we have (the paper archives too) in some ways replicate these structures as well. As fantastic as the Media History Digital Library (MHDL) is, there are still limitations in the global scope of that; in part, this is because of what they have access and rights to digitize and put up, and they recognize this as well. There is a real need to globalize that kind of material so we don’t replicate the errors of the past that are very western-centric. With everything that digital opens up, I think it’s ever more vital to maintain a global view in what we’re accessing and what we’re making accessible because it will inevitably rewrite the types of histories that we’re telling; based on what we have access to.

AMIA-UvA: Speaking of access, we wanted to ask you about your impressive work with the Davide Turconi Collection. Could you maybe start with how you got involved with the collection and how you worked with Paolo Cherchi Usai in digitizing it for the website? It’s amazing by the way; I literally lost a whole weekend browsing through it!

JY: And I lost years! How I got into the project? Well, I was very lucky and fortunate with a lot of help and guidance along the way. Paolo Cherchi Usai very generously invited me to do an internship working with the material back in 2003. I was going to the George Eastman House to do research on the film Lonesome (1928) by Paul Fejos. I had seen the film at a conference that one of my PhD advisors, Miriam Hansom, had set up and it completely bowled me over. The colour in that film especially was remarkable. It’s a print that George Eastman House holds the nitrate for; thanks to the Cinemathèque Francais.


Kinder-Korso in Nizza (The Davide Turconi Collection)

So I went to look at that film, but already at that time I had very much started to get interested in early and silent film colour; thanks to what I was seeing at The University of Chicago during my PhD. Seeing all this amazing early material from George Eastman House and from EYE – that Chicago were able to show – and just seeing all this colour all over the place really got me interested.

When I went to talk to Paolo about Lonesome he also mentioned the Turconi project. It had been ongoing for a number of years at that point but really needed a push to move it along. So I got involved with that and spent a summer at the George Eastman House working on the project. The parameters were already well established by a previous Selznick student, Patricia de Fillipi. I worked with her guidelines and expanded them, then just pushed through a ton of the scanning of that material. Over the next several years – as I was doing dissertation work on what eventually became my monograph, Moving Colour – I was also working on the Turconi collection at the same time; they fed each other dynamically. Just having access to Nitrate as a young PhD student was amazing and incredible and transformative. As we worked through the collection it grew in ways that were wonderful and surprising and daunting. It expanded from the roughly 10, 000 frames that were at George Eastman house to include other collections that turned up with material from Davide Turconi, like at the Cineteca del Friuli, Cineteca de Bologna and all over Italy.

AMIA-UvA: Could you also say something about what significance you feel a collection like this (which is a very unusual collection in some ways) has to early film history and how it should be used?

JY: In terms of globalisation, it shows this remarkable way in which film, during the silent era, wasn’t exactly defined nationally. Even though films were certainly produced in national contexts, the ways in which films float across national boundaries is something that this collection speaks to, and of course the collection that it comes from – the Josef Joye collection. It’s a Swiss collection that is currently housed at the BFI and comprises of materials from all over Europe and the United States. It attests to the kind of circulation of films during the period which I think is vital and remarkable in this international context that frames it.

AMIA-UvA: Do you feel like digitalizing the collection is enough or do you feel like something else needs to be going on?

JY: In terms of the work that we’ve done and the work we would like to do, we’ve finished a certain aspect of it – phase one. We launched it at Pordenone a few years back and we’re really proud of the work that we did there but it’s also something that we want to continue to expand on and make sure it keeps going in certain ways. In particular, its connection to the Joye collection is something we want to continue working on by looking at how it fits together and interrelates and how it patches certain holes in the Joye collection.

With digital collections in general, something that we’ve been thinking about is that it’s great to have all of this material digitised in the way that it is and making it accessible and searchable. But also there is an issue with digital collections in that there’s so much material so it’s important to have a kind of curatorial perspective on it that can shape certain pathways through it; developing it in such a way that we can have ways of talking about the colour of the material, ways of talking about the splices and all the different ways you can access the material. I think it’s important in the digital era to fight against the kind of archival fatigue that we get. It’s the kind of the ‘database complex’ Lev Manovich talks about. We want everything digitized but we’re just as lost as we were before (if not more) and so curatorial work on collections like this is vital.

Dr Joshua Yumibe 
Colour in the 1920s: Cinema and its Intermedial Contexts
The Davide Turconi Collection 

One thought on ““The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema” An Interview with Joshua Yumibe

  1. Pingback: Highlights from the AMIA Student Chapters’ Annual Reports | AMIA Education Committee

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s