Guest Article: Colour photography in the RIBA Library Photographs Collection

By Robert Elwall | 22 December 2009
a photograph of the inside of an art deco style building

(Above) Dance Band Studio, BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London (1932). Architect: Raymond McGrath. Courtesy RIBA

Culture24 has teamed up with the RIBA Library Photographs Collection to bring you a series of features highlighting some of the hidden treasures of the collection. RIBA Assistant Director Robert Elwall explains the evolution of colour in architectural photography...

Colour only became a major factor in architectural photography in the 1970s. This change was brought about by the introduction of cheaper methods of magazine reproduction and the insistence of advertisers who thought colour was more seductive.

Yet colour photography had been possible for some time. During the 1930s the practices of toning and hand colouring images developed in the 19thC were superseded by the introduction of Kodachrome transparency film in 1935 and Kodachrome negative stock in 1942.

Architectural photographers now tentatively began to experiment with these new processes.

The great American architectural photographer, Ezra Stoller, for example, took colour pictures of the New York World's Fair in 1939, while the Architectural Review published several colour features including one in 1932 on Val Myer’s new building for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

During the immediate post-war period some photographers, especially those working for magazines that specialized in interior design, often resorted to covering jobs in both black and white and colour.

This is true of the US West Coast photographer Julius Shulman. It is a testimony, however, to the expectation that architectural photographs would be monochromatic that Shulman's black and white images of California's Case Study Houses have become iconic while their colour equivalents remain very little known.

The fact is that colour still remained an expensive option and some photographers carped at the loss of creative control that using colour entailed as the film processing had to be undertaken by a commercial laboratory. There was also concern about the gaudy unreality of colour stock and the stability of early colour dyes.

a photograph of the inside of a building with a stone panelled wall

Staatsgalerie extension, Stuttgart (1983), architects: James Stirling Michael Wilford & Associates, photographer: Alastair Hunter. Courtesy RIBA

By the 1970s, however, these fears had been laid to rest and the result was an explosion in the use of colour which has had pronounced effects on the practice of architectural photography.

The technical difficulties of working with colour such as the relatively slow speed of large-format colour emulsions undermined the reportage movement in architectural photography and encouraged a return to the emphasis on form and abstraction that had been such a notable feature of the genre in the 1930s.

People were now once again seldom to be seen in the work of the new generation of photographers who were coming to the fore such as Scotland's Alastair Hunter, England's Richard Bryant or Germany’s Roland Halbe.

Just as in the 19th century the invention of chromolithography and the subsequent publication of works such as Owen Jones’s magisterial Grammar of Ornament (1856) had prompted a greater use of polychromy, so it could be argued that the eruption of colour photography in the 1970s helped to foster Postmodernism with its bold use of colour.

This can be seen especially in the later buildings of James Stirling which, it has been argued, were designed with the photographer’s lens and colour reproduction in mind.

Today the greater flexibility of digital photography means that colour and a more photojournalistic approach to architectural photography are no longer so hard to combine. It remains to be seen what use photographers will make of this new freedom.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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