Color film was rare in World War II. The vast majority of the photos taken during the conflict were in black and white, and color photography as a whole was still a relatively new technique.
It’s this fact that makes the photos published by Britain’s Imperial War Museums so mesmerizing. They are in their original state — not retouched, not colorized: “You are seeing exactly what was taken. I know it’s common these days to see retouched photographs and colorized black & white photos, but this is the real deal,” said Ian Carter, author of a museum book in which they were published, during a phone interview.
The images were commissioned by the British Ministry of Information, which got hold of a very small quantity of Kodachrome film. They then decided to use it experimentally, by giving it to some of their official photographers who took it to several locations and employed it very sparingly.
Only about 3,000 images were taken in total, but not everything has survived: “About half of them went missing and we don’t know where they went,” said Carter. The surviving photos became part of the Museum’s archives in 1949, and some of them are being published for the first time in 70 years.
Dutch civilians dance in the streets after the liberation of Eindhoven by Allied forces, September 1944. Credit: © IWM
The photos were commissioned to publish in American magazines, which were printed in color, but not all of them would have been published during the war.
It’s not entirely clear how the film was allocated to photographers, but it’s likely they were taken as “special” shots along with regular black and white cameras: “They had a very limited amount of film and had to be very careful, therefore they must have had the film in a separate camera and used it for a couple of photos while taking black and white shots,” said Carter.
Some amazing details that would be lost in greyscale suddenly emerge, such as the orange accents — the color of the Dutch royal family — in a scene of liberation in Eindhoven, Netherlands.
Nurses and convalescent aircrew at Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Hospital at Halton in Buckinghamshire, August 1943. The hospital was opened in 1927, and treated some 20,000 RAF casualties during the War. Credit: © IWM
Colorized photos or footage from World War II have been around for some time, but these images truly show the world as people would have seen it at the time: “When you see them, they look almost like they were taken yesterday or reenacted,” said Carter.
“It still seems a bit odd to see color photography from the Second World War. It still has the power to shock.”