From the Archive: Looking at the Past Through…Yellow-Colored Glasses?

by Lesley Drayton, Curator, Local History Archive

Have you ever opened an old family album only to find that the vibrant hues from your color photos have turned a sickly yellow and orange? Well, you’re not alone. Many historic color photographs, especially those from the early days of snapshot photography when color film was first widely available for personal use, have faded due to unstable color dyes, photo papers, and/or processing techniques. Exposure to years of light if the photos have been on display often exacerbates discoloration and fading of color pictures.

While I was looking through some historic photos of Loveland last week, I came across a group of lemon-yellow photographs. Here are two examples:

Loveland High School
Lake in Loveland

The backs of the photos indicated that they were processed in 1951 on Kodacolor film. I decided to do a little research on Kodacolor using my trusty copy of The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs by Henry Wilhelm.

Wilhelm has no affection for Kodacolor film. In a section of the book entitled “The Totally Lost Kodacolor Era of 1942-1953” he states that he “does not know of a single Kodacolor print taken from 1943 until 1953…that survives today in reasonable condition; all have faded and developed an ugly, overall orange or yellow stain regardless of whether they were exposed to light on display or kept in the dark in albums…These hundreds of millions – or perhaps billions – of Kodacolor prints and negatives represent the first great era of color photography to be totally lost.”

Wilhelm cites unstable magenta dye-forming color couplers that remained in the prints after processing as the chief culprit in the yellowing effect. Conversely, most images made from the famous Kodachrome film seemed to have fared far better than their Kodacolor counterparts.

Do you have any Kodacolor prints in your family albums? How about Kodachrome slides? How have they held up over time?

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2 Responses to “From the Archive: Looking at the Past Through…Yellow-Colored Glasses?”


  1. 1 Katie January 19, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Good thing Paul Simon didn’t write his song about Kodacolor! Boy, would his face be red now (or possibly yellow, having faded due to unstable magenta dye-forming color couplers).

  2. 2 Doug January 20, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Photos I took in the 1970s are holding up reasonably well, although I suspect they will begin fading at some point. I did make the mistake of placing one of my enlarged and framed photographs on a wall where the sunlight fell on it. It now shows the effects and I have no negative to replace it.

    Doug


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