Cliché In The Making: Sunsets In Early Colour Photography

Janine Freeston

Response To:

 When is a cliché not a cliché? Reconsidering Mass Produced Sunsets

In the context of the Reconsidering Amateur Photography discussions, the example of the amateur colour photographer at the start of the twentieth century offers a historical perspective on the subject of sunsets as photographic clichés. Confined due to expense and time constraints to those who had an abundance of both, colour photography in the 1920s was not yet in the domain of the mass amateur market but of the amateur who aspired to exhibition and acclaim. Their aspiration for recognition in the annals of art photography was steeped in mimicry. 

As Annebella Pollen has observed, the unique and often awe-inspiring beauty of the setting sun is as different in meaning for each photographer as it is for each day. The common threads of physical values within the image and the emotional responses from the producer and the viewer weave together to form the intrinsically, artfully, vague fabric of sunset photographs. The captivation of such a fleeting spectrum of colours and tones has long captivated the imagination, firstly of artists and secondly of photographers, as the subject can evoke a sense of wellbeing, completion and calm and its accurate reproduction provides a technical challenge. In the late nineteenth century, due to technological restrictions, sunsets were photographed and exhibited in monochrome, but their producers nonetheless aspired to the hierarchical values of high art.[1]

The type of amateur photographer who was actively engaged in colour photography between the 1890s and 1920s was very different both socially and practically to the mass amateur photographer that Michael Prichard refers to as the ‘snapshotter’. There were a growing number of ‘gentlewomen amateurs’ of independent means who were actively engaged in all aspects of producing colour photography alongside their ‘gentleman-amateur’ counterparts.[2] In the first two decades of the twentieth century, as colour photography was fraught with difficulties and limitations, it was much more expensive than black and white processes. This limited its appeal to the mass market whose sunsets therefore remained monochrome or hand-painted.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, colour photography was struggling to overcome chemical photosensitivity and technological processing obstacles that challenged photographic practitioners to mimic accurately the colours of nature onto either glass plate or paper. On numerous occasions in the technical history of photography, capturing a fleeting moment has been a signifier of the technical success of a new process or the prowess of the photographer. The amateurs experimenting with colour processes were challenged by reflected light on clouds and water, dark silhouetted shadows and continuously changing lighting conditions.

These challenges necessitated technical skill and understanding for the application of variable exposure times and innovative lens and filter systems. The fidelity of colour in photography was dependent on filters synthesising to convey realistic colours and, as such, was vulnerable to the accuracy of the selection of the filters or dyes.  Reds and oranges were particularly difficult to reproduce from three colour processes and, because of this, subjects containing these colours were often chosen to showcase the prowess of the producer. The darkroom skills required for aligning the superimposed colours demanded dexterity and patience as a single print could take several days to produce. Therefore the capturing and reproducing of a sunset became inextricably linked with the resolution of practical and technical challenges in colour photography.

As early colour photographers strove for artistic expression within a medium which technologically constrained their options to manipulate the image during printing, a successful photograph of a sunset could bridge the gap between technology and art. The fuzzy edges of clouds and the constantly shifting colours of a sunset with the sharp edges of subjects in silhouette were ideal for the longer exposures required in the early stages of colour photography. This colour print could then potentially be hung in an exhibition alongside pictorial landscapes, garnering recognition for the photographer and extricating colour photography from the back rooms.

One of the privileged few who succeeded in capturing a fleeting sunset in a colour photograph was Violet Blaiklock whose Lead Kindly Light illustrates the aspirations of an amateur colour photographer in the 1920s.

The subject and its title adhere to high art traditions. Along with her cohorts in dedicated clubs and committees, she challenged the institutional perception of fine art photography as monochrome by mimicking pictorialists’ conventions in colour. At the time, colour photography’s idiosyncrasies cut across the grain of photography’s identity as a disseminator of information and a mirror of nature. Its impreciseness often manifested itself in an unnatural appearance, which attracted considerable censure from photography critics such as R. Child Bailey:

The use of colour is obvious. Used with discrimination it adds a new aesthetic dimension to the photograph. Used carelessly (...) it adds a new horror to life.[3]

The sunset offered the opportunity for educated and cultured amateurs to produce evocative colour photographs that could be exhibited. The subject tolerated misalignments and movement in the skylines whilst referencing past pictorial aesthetics. The aping of high art painterly ideals through sunsets can be considered clichéd as far as it references past art forms but, in this particular context, it was also nascent as a means of brokering an advancement in the acceptance of colour in photographic art.



  1. In 1870 Col H Stuart Wortley (1832-1890) submitted his monochrome sunset albumen prints photograph for exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society’s annual show and for the next 50 years sunsets became a regular feature of the exhibition. back
  2. Michael Prichard, Who were the amateur photographers?, Either/And, 2012. Available at back
  3. R. Child Bailey, Photography in Colours, Photography Bookshelf, No. 5 Iliffe, Sons & Sturmey Ltd., 1900. p. 74. back

Image references

  1. Figure 1: Violet K Blaiklock Lead Kindly Light c 1920 B15 16337 RPS Collection at National Media Museum, Bradford back