Today colour photography is common place in museums, exhibitions and the art market. The medium has been booming since the 1980s, even though a decade earlier it was still not really an acknowledged art form. Until well into the 1970s, the vast majority of photographs that were collected and exhibited were in black-and-white. There was an aesthetic prejudice against colour photography, since it was widely used by many amateurs, as well as by professional journalists, advertisers, mass media, and the entertainment industry. Collectors were also reluctant to accept colour due to conservation reasons, since the pigmentation in early colour photographs was highly unstable.

Recognition of colour photography as an art form was a cultural phenomenon which began in the 1970s in the United States, and progressed so rapidly that just a decade later, the difference between colour and black-and-white photography began to seem obsolete. The designation “colour” was generally dropped from exhibition and publication titles from that point forward. It had assimilated to the point that the distinction was no longer required. The importance of photographic practice gave way to modern theory and critical debate.

Ernst Haas, an Austrian photographer, was one of the early advocates of colour photography. His vibrant and poetic images captured the essence of the world in vivid hues, revealing the emotional and aesthetic potential of colour. Haas’s work demonstrated that colour could convey a sense of atmosphere and evoke deep emotional responses.

Saul Leiter, with his unique and intimate street photography, also played a significant role in the emergence of colour photography as an art form. His poetic and atmospheric images captured the serendipity of moments and the interplay of colours in the urban environment. Leiter’s work demonstrated the power of colour to evoke mood and narrative in photography.

A turning point in the history of colour photography was the exhibition Photographs by William Eggleston at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976. Eggleston’s motifs came from different places in the Mississippi Delta, very close to his home town of Memphis, Tennessee. He took pictures of friends and acquaintances, cemeteries, children from the suburbs, parked cars, garbage dumps, fields, city buildings, everyday interiors, and apparently trivial snapshots. His subjects were ordinary, everyday scenes which were elevated by a masterful use of colour. One of the most famous of these photos is Greenwood, Mississippi, also known as Red Ceiling. Taken in 1973, it features a naked light bulb and a few pipes in front of a background comprised of the ceiling of a room, painted red.

Art critics vented their displeasure over the ordinariness of the subjects and Eggleston’s non-committal, passive, almost apathetic attitude toward his motifs - all the more so, because the intensely coloured, dye-transfer photographs displayed great technical and compositional virtuosity. Despite all of his artistry, all of the obvious effort and care, the artist clearly had nothing to say; his pictures seemed to say to the observer: I don’t care what you see in them; see what you want to see.

Stephen Shore was another one of the most influential photographers of the early 1970s. His work, which was shown in 1977 at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, greatly influenced the development of fine arts photography in Germany. Paying homage to Walker Evans’ American Photographs and Robert Frank’s famous series of portraits, The Americans, Shore undertook a road trip across America in 1972. On the way, he photographed fast-food restaurants, motels, gas stations, and the edges of the roadway, taking pictures of many motifs which were so trivial that no amateur would have bothered to even take a snapshot of them: open refrigerators, toilets, sinks, drugstore shelves, and fast food meals. He had the prints made in drugstores, and even their small size corresponded to the conventions of amateur photography. Shore gave the project a title laced with innuendo: American Surfaces.

Shore’s approach was documentary-style, uncritical, artless; his randomly selected motifs and angles gave the pictures an anonymous quality, left them without a signature, and yet, they were uniquely and purely determined by his subjective perspective. “…If you remove as much of the photographic convention as possible, what you’re left with is yourself, and how you see,” said Shore in an interview. Shore was interested in the hard-to-grasp difference between a subjective perspective, whose expansion of time limited it to a brief moment, and the recording of this, fixed in a photograph.

Shore later pursued this idea in large formats, producing perspectives of apparently randomly selected sections of streets, highways, and house façades. His works were shown at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1977 and the Documenta 6, which turned for the first time to historic and contemporary photography. These exhibitions were facilitated by Bernd Becher, who had been the photography professor at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie (Düsseldorf art school) since 1976. Some of the now world-famous Becher students are Candida Höfer (1944-), Axel Hütte (1951-), Thomas Struth (1954-), Andreas Gursky (1955-), Thomas Ruff (1958-), Rineke Dijkstra (1959-), and Elger Esser (1967-). The Becher School established certain themes in fine arts photography, such as consumer culture, alienation, work and leisure time, technology and traffic, overpopulation and urban growth. Self-confidently, the Düsseldorf School created large-format photos and emphasized the autonomy of the individual image as a self-contained work, which needed no other context as an intermediary.

The emergence of colour photography marked a significant milestone in the history of the medium. Technological advancements and the creative vision of pioneering photographers expanded the artistic possibilities of photography, challenging the dominance of black and white imagery. Colour photography brought a heightened sense of realism, depth, and emotional resonance to visual narratives, while also providing a new dimension for experimentation and self-expression. The impact of colour photography continues to shape contemporary photography, illustrating the enduring power and versatility of this medium.