The Forgotten Name of Colour Photography

Pioneers of Colour Photography

When you talk about colour photography as a serious “art form” the usual names will come up as pioneers in this field: William Eggleston, Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, Harry Gruyaert and Martin Parr.  All these have certainly been acknowledged as photographers who took colour photography out of the gaudy catalogs of yesteryear and into the major art galleries from the 1970’s onwards.

The highly influential colour photobook “William Eggleston’s Guide” published after his 1976 MoMA exhibition.

After all, up until this time, it was only black and white photography that was considered as serious and artistic photography.  The landmark change to this view most probably came along when, in 1976, the colour photography of a relatively unknown William Eggleston was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.  Although critically panned at the time, Eggleston was largely influential in turning many art based photographers to colour photography.

However, there is a name that is often overlooked when the pioneers of colour photography are discussed.  In fact this photographer was producing colour art photography some thirty years or so before Eggleston’s MoMA exhibition.  Despite being an influence on both Eggleston and Martin Parr, there is no mention of this photographer in either the Oxford Companion to the Photograph or the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Photography.

Keld Helmer-Petersen 122 Colour Photographs

The book ‘A Century of Colour Photography” by Pamela Roberts is one of the few histories on photography that acknowledge the contribution of Keld Helmer-Petersen to colour photography.

So who was he?  Keld Helmer-Petersen was a Danish photographer who, in 1948, published a photobook entitled “122 Colour Photographs“, arguably the first ever book of serious colour photography.  In fact, the seminal LIFE magazine published several of these works on its pages in 1949.  Yet, amazingly the name of Helmer-Petersen remains a mystery to most.

Some of the photos that appear in 122 Colour Photographs published in 1948 by Keld Helmer-Petersen.

Despite being overlooked in many photography encyclopedias thankfully the excellent “A Century of Colour Photography” (2007) by Pamela Roberts does acknowledge the importance of Helmer-Petersen.

“Keld Helmer-Petersen…aimed to make pictures that would only work in colour…(showing) his sharp eye for colour and form.”

His importance to contemporary colour photography is further underlined by Gerry Badger.

“It is through 122 Colour Photographs that I came to know the work of Keld Helmer-Petersen.  Martin Parr introduced me to the volume when we were researching our history of the photobook…122 Colour Photographs suggest that (color photography as a serious creative medium) began in Denmark in the 1940s.”

So why is it, despite this acknowledged influence on contemporary greats like Parr and Eggleston, that Keld Helmer-Petersen’s name is largely overlooked and forgotten.  I think this likely comes down to the fact that much of twentieth century photography history is US biased – given the obvious influence US colour photographers started having in the 1970s.  It’s easy (or convenient?) to overlook a book by a humble Danish photographer when compared to a much more heralded MoMA exhibition.

The Colour Legacy

A spread of “The Overlooked City” work, from the book ‘Keld Helmer-Petersen Photographs 1941-1995’.

However, it may simply be the case that after 122 Colour Photographs, Helmer-Petersen didn’t go on to shoot exclusively in colour after this point.  In fact, much of his work continued to be in black and white.  Yet, he still did produce great colour work, as demonstrated in various Kodachromes he shot in places such as New Mexico, Iran and Japan and a 1995 exhibition project in Denmark, called “The Overlooked City”, of which Helmer-Petersen was one of the commissioned the photographers.

A third factor for his influence not being as widely recognised as some of his contemporaries is that his colour work is completely devoid of people.  So as the popularity of street photography has grown over the last 20 years, it’s easier to overlook Helmer-Petersen because he doesn’t fit the usual “requirements” to be classified as a street photographer.

A Colour Influencer

Some of Keld Helmer-Petersen’s Kodachromes, as featured in the book ‘Keld Helmer-Petersen Pgotographs 1941-1995.’

I personally became aware of Helmer-Petersen’s work in 2006 when the Rocket Gallery in London exhibited some of his work.  It was this exhibition that convinced me to move to exclusively shoot in colour ever since – so he has definitely had a major influence on my photography since this time.

So it’s a shame that Keld Helmer-Petersen isn’t a name more widely known today.  But of you enjoy colour photography or a colour photographer then certainly do go and check him out.  I’d definitely recommend the book, “Keld Helmer-Petersen Photographs 1941-1995” (2007) as a great retrospective of his photographic history – that’s if you can find a copy these days!

Keld sadly died in March 2013 aged 83 years old.

5 Colour Photographs

As a homage, here are 5 of my own colour photographs that were highly influenced by Keld Helmer-Petersen and particularly his 122 Colour Photographs book down the years.  I like to think that each of these 5 images only work in colour, whilst also being similar to the same kind of subjects Helmer-Petersen shot in the book.

Borough, London (2007)
Croydon, London (2007)
Borough, London (2008)
Bermondsey, London (2009)
Brighton, East Sussex (2016)

Check out my street photography website for more of my work.

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