World in color

by World Press Photo

Since 1955, the world as presented in World Press Photo’s winning pictures has gradually shifted from being exclusively black-and-white to almost completely full color.

The percentage of color photos awarded every year has fluctuated around 80 percent since 2008, while it used to be around five percent in the early 1970s.

Color was introduced in the contest in 1965, when World Press Photo celebrated its 10th anniversary. It proved to be one of the main attractions of the exhibition. Just two years earlier, World Press Photo’s chairman Peter van Breukelen seemed unenthusiastic about color, when he told a journalist that he did not believe in color prints of press photos as the essence of press photos did not need to be expressed in color. And indeed, very few award-winning color pictures from the 1960s could be retraced in the World Press Photo archive. Some of them only survived in a black-and-white version, probably due to the high costs involved with printing for the exhibition and the fact that press prints were produced in black-and-white. Newspapers did not print color yet and would not do so until the 1980s.

Kodachrome and Agfacolor 35mm films had been invented in the mid-1930s, but initially their cost was high and their light sensitivity low. After World War II, color photography became cheaper and easier to use, and by the end of the 1960s, color film was as light sensitive as black-and-white.

Newspapers & magazines

While newspapers would remain the exclusive domain of black-and-white photography for many years to come, color photos had begun making their slow progress through the picture magazines—fashion and travel photography upfront—from the early 1950s onwards. Life magazine was one of them, and in 1967, a color picture, made for Life by Co Rentmeester in Vietnam, was named World Press Photo of the Year for the first time. Larry Burrows, another Life photographer active in Vietnam, was awarded several times for his color stories. At the time, he was one of the few photojournalists considered to understand the requirements of color, due to his thorough color apprenticeship.

In the UK, newspaper color supplements were introduced around the same time, The Sunday Times being the first to do so. The paper’s art director Michael Rand, who served on the World Press Photo jury six times between 1973 and 1989, was an advocate of more color entries to the contest. He praised Don McCullin’s use of color in his 1973 winning story about Vietnamization, published in The Sunday Times Magazine: “Here, color is used realistically, solely to supply information. It illustrates the magazine’s advantage over television.”

Color as a contest category

Although color had been abolished as a separate category in 1971, opening up all categories for color and black-and-white alike, it remained weak during the entire 1970s. Every year, the jury complained about the lack of color photography in general and the low quality in particular. Color was also at a disadvantage during the judging process, as little slides on a light box did not compare favorable with the large black-and-white prints. World Press Photo’s need for good color photography was directly linked to the need for more entries by magazines. To stimulate the submission of color images, the color category was briefly reintroduced in 1978.

David Burnett’s World Press Photo of the Year marked a turning point in 1980, being the first to be in color again since 1967. In 1979, World Press Photo’s chairman Joop Swart remarked that news pictures showed a more sophisticated use of color, while the quality of the black-and-white prints declined through sloppy printing techniques by younger generations. Dieter Steiner, chair of the 1984 jury, wrote in the yearbook, “with the growing use of colour in magazine, television and newspapers colour photos could come to form the majority of the World Press Photo entries in the foreseeable future.” This point was indeed reached three years later, in 1987. As other juries had observed before, color photography was often not within reach of photographers from countries where color material and equipment was scarce and expensive. That year’s winning picture, however, was a color photo made for a Turkish newspaper by a Turkish photographer, Mustafa Bozdemir.

In 1991, Georges Mérillon was the first year winner to be praised explicitly for his subtle use of color. Christian Caujolle, chair of the 1991 jury, explained in an interview that although color has its own rules, many photographers just changed their films from black-and-white to color and kept photographing as black-and-white photographers. Mérillon himself remarked that he worked in color because his clients wanted him to: “At Gamma [Mérillon’s agency], we only have one black-and-white darkroom left, and this one is rarely used. You should check our photo bags, I don’t think you would find any black-and-white film. But it often happens that I am working on a particular subject, and realize that I would have loved to do it in black-and-white. But we work for the press and not for art galleries and the like.”

Back to black-and-white

James Nachtwey, whose first winning pictures were notably in color, set a trend in 1993 when he won his first World Press Photo of the Year award for a black-and-white photograph. With the exception of 1982, it was the first in 10 years. And with the exception of 1998 and 2001, the World Press Photo of the Year remained black-and-white until 2004. Some ascribe this renaissance of black-and-white photography to the commercial developments, which Georges Mérillon had pointed out as well. Feeling forced to work in color, some photographers returned to black-and-white. French photographer Stéphane Duroy explained in World Press Photo’s Newsletter in 1997: “Many professionals yearn for the greater directness, impact and simplicity of this form. For them, the black-and-white image is an escape route from the apparent dead-end that magazines have maneuvered themselves into.”

With the rise of the digital age, photography became color by default, and black-and-white a choice often made afterwards.


Erich Baumann

Co Rentmeester

Larry Burrows

Don McCullin

David Burnett

Mustafa Bozdemir

Georges Mérillon

James Nachtwey

Stephane Duroy