Aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, American servicemen watch high-ranking Japanese and American officials sign the former’s instrument of surrender, which finally brought the hostilities of World War 2 to an end.
United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons
American tank crew servicemen post at Fort Knox, Ken., in June 1942.Alfred T. Palmer/Office of War Information/Library of Congress
The bodies of former prisoners are laid out in rows in preparation for burial soon after the liberation of the Ohrdruf concentration camp near Weimar, Germany by U.S. forces in April 1945.Parke O. Yingst/United States Army/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Wikimedia Commons
Survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp gather near its barracks on April 16, 1945, soon after the camp’s liberation by U.S. forces.Parke O. Yingst/United States Army/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Wikimedia Commons
American sailors onboard a destroyer. Circa 1940.Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Two prisoners of the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany stare out through its barbed wire fence. 1945.Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images
“I work in colour sometimes,” said Mary Ellen Mark, who sits not far from Frank in the pantheon of revered black-and-white photographers, “but I guess the images I most connect to, historically speaking, are in black and white. I see more in black and white – I like the abstraction of it.”
“Black and white are the colors of photography,” legendary photographer Robert Frank once said. “To me, they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.”
An American soldier from 7th Armored Division mans the machine gun of his tank while on maneuvers. Circa 1943.PhotoQuest/Getty Images
At an evacuation hospital near the Italian front lines, actress Marlene Dietrich sits on a piano while troops and wounded soldiers gather around to listen to her sing. May 1944.PhotoQuest/Getty Images
A French sailor and two U.S. Army soldiers gaze at the Eiffel Tower after the liberation of Paris. September 1944.Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
German forces march through Paris. Date unspecified.Wikimedia Commons
An American soldier trains at Fort Knox, Ken., in June 1942.Alfred T. Palmer/Office of War Information/Library of Congress
U.S. troops, among the first to land during the D-Day invasion, approach the beaches of Normandy, France, likely near Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, on June 6, 1944.Robert F. Sargent/United States Coast Guard/Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
Hungarian personnel, aligned with the Nazis, move into Bistrița, Romania on September 8, 1940.Fortepan/Wikimedia Commons
Canadian soldiers disembark at Juno Beach in Normandy, France during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia Commons
After this look at World War 2 in color, see more of the most powerful photos of World War 2 in both color and black-and-white. Then, discover the truth behind some of the most enduring World War 2 myths.
In other words, black-and-white may be timeless, but is timeless always what we want?
Adolf Hitler and several Nazi officials survey the Great Gustav, the largest artillery cannon ever built at 155 feet long, 1350 tonnes in weight, with 11-foot shells weighing seven tonnes each. Date unspecified.manhhai/Flickr
When someone alive today looks at photographs from World War 2, for example, the black-and-white may very well abstract the images from their original time and thus allow the modern viewer to better tap into the images’ timeless, eternal sense of hope or despair.
A group of U.S. Army soldiers, rifles in hand, wears gas masks during a training exercise in California related to chemical attacks. 1943.The Frank S. Errigo Archive/Getty Images
An American soldier stands near a wagon loaded with corpses outside the crematorium of the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 16, 1945, not long after the camp’s liberation.Parke O. Yingst/United States Army/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Navy sailors rescue a survivor from the water alongside the sunken battleship USS West Virginia amid the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.Army Signal Corps/U.S. National Archives/Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Air Force planes fly over Germany. Circa 1944-1945.National Museum of the U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons
Highly decorated U.S. Air Force pilot Francis Gabreski. Date unspecified.United States Air Force/Wikimedia Commons
One of the officers of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Bennington inscribes a bomb “For Gael!” in memory of a departed shipmate, prior to strikes on Japanese targets. Circa May 1945.United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Marine Corps planes fly over Midway Atoll, the site of what is widely regarded as the most decisive American victory over the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. Circa 1942-1943.United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons
It’s easy to agree with Robert Frank’s words — especially because they come from Robert Frank.
Thick smoke billows from stricken American warships (from left, USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee) along battleship row during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.US Navy/Interim Archives/Getty Images
Central Hiroshima lies in ruins in September 1945, the month after U.S. forces dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city.Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
A lathe operator forges parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant in Fort Worth, Tex., in October 1942.Howard R. Hollem/Office of War Information/Library of Congress
Shortly after the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, a former prisoner holds a human bone from a large pile of other bones from the camp’s crematory. Circa April 1945.PhotoQuest/Getty Images
A woman drills parts for a dive bomber at the Vultee Aircraft Corporation factory in Nashville, Tenn., in February 1943.Alfred T. Palmer/Office of War Information/Library of Congress
Still, it’s hard to dismiss one of the strongest advantages that color photography holds over black-and-white: its immediacy.
American soldiers stand next to a pile of corpses on a trailer at the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp on April 12, 1945.Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
A German solider fires a backpack flamethrower across a field of tall grass in the Soviet Union. Circa 1941-1942.R. Grimm/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
U.S. Army Rangers sit on board a landing craft assault vessel in Weymouth Harbour, England on June 6, 1944. The ship is bound for the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.Clockwise, from far left: First Sergeant Sandy Martin, who was killed during the landing, Technician Fifth Grade Joseph Markovich, Corporal John Loshiavo, and Private First Class Frank E.
Lockwood.Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
A camouflaged American serviceman holds his pistol while making a call on a walkie-talkie. Circa 1943.PhotoQuest/Getty Images
Both U.S. Navy servicemen and projectiles line the deck of the battleship USS New Mexico just prior to the invasion of Guam in July 1944.United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons
Canadian soldiers hold a Nazi flag that they’d captured south of Hautmesnil, France on August 10, 1944.Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia Commons
An emaciated former prisoner of the Buchenwald concentration camp drinks from a metal bowl shortly after the camp’s liberation in April 1945.PhotoQuest/Getty Images
U.S. Navy aviator Jesse Rhodes Waller tries out a machine gun he had just installed on a plane at the air base in Corpus Christi, Tex., in August 1942.Howard R. Hollem/Office of War Information/Library of Congress
This question becomes even more important when it comes to images that document history long gone by.
But the historical events able to be preserved to an appreciable degree in color — and World War 2 was among the first — can come back to life for the present-day viewer in ways that they likely wouldn’t in black-and-white.
Perhaps color reminds us, more so than black-and-white, that the subjects captured were real people just like us, and not merely beings of the past. Black-and-white may preserve the heart and soul, but perhaps color preserves the flesh and blood.
The gallows at the Ohrdruf concentration camp. April 1945.Parke O. Yingst/United States Army/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Wikimedia Commons
A U.S. landing craft filled with troops approaches the French coast for the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
But that same kind of abstraction can make an image inert — a moment becomes a museum piece, a thing of the past, something that happened to somebody else, something that has no bearing on our present.
U.S. soldiers with guard dogs walk patrol on a beach in Los Angeles, Ca., in order to spot possible Japanese attackers. 1943.The Frank S. Errigo Archive/Getty Images
This photo from the German Army publication Signal depicts the Nazi advance during the Battle of Moscow. Circa January 1942.Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images
U.S. Army soldiers are engage in combat with German forces near the cathedral in Cologne. April 1945.Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
Rarely Seen Color Photos Of World War II That Truly Bring History To Life
Locals clean up following a bombing raid on the United Kingdom. August 9, 1942.John Hinde/SSPL/Getty Images
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (front left), U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt (front center), and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (front right) sit at the grounds of the Livadia Palace in Crimea, USSR during the Yalta Conference, held to discuss the reorganization of postwar Europe.
February 1945.War Office/Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons
Indeed, whereas black-and-white offers an invaluable sense of “abstraction” — a timeless way to tap into the human hope and despair that Frank posits as eternal — color offers a certain vital sense of the here-and-now.
Crowds gather on Paris’ Champs Elysees as French tanks roll past in celebration of the liberation of France on August 26, 1944.Jack Downey/Office of War Information/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons
British Army Corporal M. Smith poses at the main headquarters of the Eighth Army near Monte Sant’Angelo, Italy. Circa 1944.Capt. Tanner/War Office/Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons