Think about old movies, especially silent ones, and you imagine them in black and white. But most silent films, according to Joshua Yumibe, AM’00, PhD’07, had at least some color.

Before the heyday of feature-length Hollywood movies, most early films were fiction and nonfiction shorts; some were magical “trick” or “fairy” films, where the filmmakers exploited the new medium to make characters disappear or change shape, and color was part of this wonder.

An associate professor in English and the director of the film studies program at Michigan State University, Yumibe explores not just how early color films were made, but why they are significant. His latest book, Chromatic Modernity: Color, Cinema, and Media of the 1920s (Columbia University Press, April 2019, cowritten with Sarah Street), illustrates what Yumibe describes as “a very chromatic decade—not just in film but from automobiles to fashion to printing.”

The study of color film touches on topics including modernism, aesthetic theory, chemistry, and feminism, Yumibe says. “You can spend your life going down rabbit holes. You start pulling one strand, and you end up moving from Derrida to the German aniline colorant industry to the Greeks.”

Yumibe came to UChicago to earn a master’s degree at the Divinity School and studied the intersection of literature and religion with Françoise Meltzer, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities, chair of Comparative Literature, and professor in the Divinity School. Though he’d never taken a film course, Yumibe’s job at the Film Studies Center archive, combined with Meltzer’s early work on color in the occult and in symbolist poetry, sparked an interest in early color film.

“He was really moving into a territory that was very neglected by most people,” says Tom Gunning, the Edwin A. and Betty Bergman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Cinema and Media Studies and Art History, Yumibe’s dissertation adviser, and one of his coauthors on Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2015).

During Yumibe’s dissertation research, Yuri Tsivian, the William Colvin Professor in Cinema and Media Studies, Art History, and Comparative Literature, helped arrange for him to spend a summer internship at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. The museum is one of a small number of archives in the world that can preserve highly flammable and sometimes explosive nitrate film. Yumibe helped to preserve the Davide Turconi Collection: a massive assortment of two- or three-frame snippets of different color films mostly dating from about 1905 to 1912.

That summer led to a long-term project for Yumibe, and also to his current area of research. Yumibe describes these fragments, with their depth of color, as being “like dazzling little jewels,” but their artistry is only part of the story.

Take for example, gendered labor practices: the coloring of early films was usually done by women—sometimes using stencils, or at other times hand painted frame by frame, or even dipped in dyes to tint whole scenes.

“There was a long-held assumption that women were both better at handicraft detailed work like that and also had a better aesthetic sensibility when it came to color,” Yumibe says. As a result, women were often employed for this coloring work from about 1895 on: “it was in fact the first type of production work available to women in the film industry.”

From an aesthetic standpoint, Yumibe became interested in color itself, or the lack thereof, particularly in relation to the idea of “chromophobia,” a term coined by artist and critic David Batchelor. Generally framed as a Western concept—early color both in film and in general in non-Western cultures merits much more research, Yumibe says—chromophobia is less an overt fear of color than a refusal to take it seriously. From Kant, who valued form and line over color, to the persistent belief that ancient Greek statues represented pure form because they erroneously were thought to be unpainted white marble, chromophobia spills out from art critics and theorists into mainstream thinking.

“Color is connected historically to the decorative, as opposed to form, which is thought to be pure,” Yumibe says.

Aspects of chromophobia also run through chemistry: Yumibe says the same scientists who made color dyes also made pharmaceuticals both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as in the ancient Greek pharmacy where both pigments and medicines were mixed. As a result, color was associated not just with psychedelia but also with “the lack of inhibition that follows from that kind of experimentation,” he says.

In many ways these negative associations of color affected the lack of preservation of the color in many early films. Yumibe says some archivists “just didn’t think it was important” and did not take the extra (and often costly) steps to keep color from fading.

But color does have meaning in these films. An otherwise black-and-white silent film might have one colored element, like a red dress or golden coins, for emphasis. Scenes might be tinted blue to indicate night or red for the devil’s lair, as in the 1912 French film Physique diabolique.

In Fantasia of Color, Yumibe writes about the 1914 Belgian anti-war film Maudite soit la guerre: “The alternations in the film between naturalistic color and saturated destruction point to the ways in which modern color, like modern warfare, was deeply indebted to technological modernity, and the promise that technology held in the early twentieth century to enrich nature could also produce wastelands.”

Gunning says understanding the technological aspects of color film is important, but “it’s much rarer to have someone who will think about what it means.”

Yumibe credits that thinking to UChicago, where he learned to consider the developments of past eras as “a kind of prognostic on the present and on the future.” Looking at the use of color in its earliest days, he says, “allows us to think about the ways in which media transformations occur” today.

Consider Instagram filters, he says. Or a movie like 2005’s Sin City, primarily in black and white with spots of saturated color.

“Anybody at home working in iPhoto can hypersaturate or desaturate,” says Yumibe. These technologies remind him of the early twentieth century, “when films were spectacular and colorful. Color wasn’t just about a realistic world, but it was about a world of fantasy and a world of craft and creativity.”