I have been thinking about "color shock" for a while and, if you will excuse the pun, these photographs from the Library of Congress* bring this phenomenon into sharp focus. Taken in Russia between 1909 and 1915, these color people are much closer to me in felt time than they would have been in black and white. I always had the feeling that somehow people LOOKED fundamentally different in the past, but I think that is entirely to do with the medium of black and white. That difference is eliminated with the addition of color. These were people. They look totally normal.
Then again, perhaps we enjoy this color boundary in some cases. I remember when color photographs of Adolph Hitler were released I felt very disturbed by them. I live in a world where Hitler has come to symbolize a sort of inhuman pure evil. This darkness was cleanly maintained by the starkness of every one of the thousands of black and white photos and films of him that I have seen. When Life shared color photos of him, my neat and tidy, black and white, good and evil world was rocked. Hitler the inhuman became Hitler the tired looking dude with an uneven hair cut at a car show in 1939 or Hitler that guy in the sharp suit having a chuckle with a pretty lady. He is just some boring guy. How can evil be so bland? Compare color Hitler to black and white Hitler…different emotions?
Why am I always surprised that the past was reality?
*At the moment the Library of Congress site is down and I am using an alternate source. I will update when they update.