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Tech Diary — Early 1990s

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Tech Diary — Early 1990s

Is the past colored or black and white?

The beginning of the 1990s is known even to those who were born at the time – or perhaps only afterwards: German unity, the unification of the Federal Republic and the GDR (although correct: the accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic of Germany) as drastic moment of German history is present in the collective memory.

However, wait a minute. As a contemporary observer of events, I remember the key moments in color. About as:

Color photo: People and German flags in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin.  Photo description of the Federal Archives: Hundreds of thousands were there when the black, red and gold federal flag was hoisted in front of the Reichstag.

And that’s probably how it is for most of them: The television pictures of those years were already in color, the ARD Tagesschau had been broadcast in color since March 1970. Color photography had been around much longer, and after World War II color images also made their way into photojournalism.

In the weekly papers and magazines there were also colorful pictures of the fall of the Wall, of the GDR, of German reunification. In the current daily newspapers of that day, however, mostly black-and-white photos, such as that of Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his wife Hannelore on October 3, 1990, the day of German unity, in Berlin (above). Why actually – and why wasn’t everything already in color, the technology was already there a long time ago?

The answer to that is twofold. One explanation: most daily newspapers still printed the photos in black and white well into the 1990s. For example, published the Southgerman newspaper 1996 the first color photo on their front page. So the newspaper readers were used to it.

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In addition to the lack of demand for printed media, there were technical hurdles for color photography in current reporting. The pictures were taken on classic film, which had to be developed after exposure before there was a usable photo. This film development took time – and it was (and is) easier and faster for black-and-white film than for color film. If the photos were also taken far away from the editors and thus from their own photo laboratory, all the equipment for the development had to be carried along; this, too, was easier for a black-and-white film than for a color film.

However, the development was only half the way to bring the photo to the end consumer: the images also had to be transmitted, i.e. from the place of recording and/or development to the newspaper editors. There have been technical processes for this for decades, which have also been available for color photos since the 1970s:

However: The image transmission – with a telephone line as a data line – lasted. The photographers of those years remember 30 minutes (!) per picture. (Anyone who has compared the file size of a color and a black-and-white photo taken with the photos from their digital camera also knows:) The transmission of a color image took several times as long as a black-and-white photo.

All of that only changed at the beginning of the new millennium: Digital photography not only made film development superfluous, it also simplified and accelerated the transmission of images (which are nothing more than digital data). From the early 1990s, the time marked by transitions on various levels, the mixed memory remains in color and black and white.

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(Photo above: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-1003-010 / Grimm, Peer / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1990-1003-010, Berlin, Reichstag, Hannelore and Helmut Kohl, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE ; Photo below: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-1003-400 / Grimm, Peer / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1990-1003-400, Berlin, German unification, in front of the Reichstag, CC BY-SA 3.0 EN)

(Thomas Wiegold)

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