Making History More Colorful

November 07, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

I was on Facebook recently and saw a post about a blogger that was on a rant (shocking, I know). The topic of the rant interested me enough that I did end up clicking on the link to see what all the hubub was about. In the blog post was a link to Time Magazine's Lightbox website; I've been to that website a few times in the past, and there are definitely some cool photos there.

This time there was no original, "Commissioned-by-Time" photographs on display, instead there were photographs from throughout photographically-recorded history that had been digitally cleaned up and colorized. The blog poster was, in a word, upset that these photographs had been adjusted as they were. This set up the rant, which I read with amusement. The basis of the rant was about how the colors were poorly done, poorly researched, and that it should never have been done in the first place, as it messed with the photographer's choices as the photos were originally taken. While there are points made that I'll agree with, I don't think they're all valid points.

The slideshow starts with a few photos of Abraham Lincoln - on the battle field, in a portrait, in a bit of down-time when he was getting a death mask made. They all seemed fairly well done to the casual observer, and as you get on a bit, you get to more "recent" photojournalistic photographs of events that were definitely striking, and powerful images of their time. My only gripe with the slide show itself is that I want it to show the black and white/original photographs first, then the colorization of the photo. However, I am just your humble narrator here, and not the editor of the Time site.

As to the technique and execution of the colorization, I see the blog poster's point of needing to do a bit more research on the matter. A quick Google search for Lincoln's physical description shows that the artist who colorized the photos did get it wrong, at least "by the book." Lincoln is shown with pink-ish, colorful skin and saturated, sky-blue eyes. Lincoln described himself as having "dark complexion... and gray eyes." With that in mind, you will probably look at the Lincoln photos especially in a bit of a different light. However, to me, that doesn't matter a bit.

What Time was trying to accomplish was to bring a new life to old photographs of people and events that shaped our history and changed our world. In my eyes, especially with the Lincoln photos, they have succeeded! You always see the photos of Lincoln in B&W or sepia toning, and that's just how we think of those times. However, our parents didn't exactly tell us the truth that the photos of them when they were kids were in B&W because the world didn't turn colorful until the 70s (this isn't The Giver, after all). So, seeing Abe Lincoln in "full living color" brings, to me, a new dimension of history. I like color a lot, and the color brought to those Lincoln photos is amazing to me.

It's not only the Lincoln photos, either. The photo of the monk's protest was amazing, and the color brings it to life even more; it makes me instantly sense the lengths the monk would go to (indeed, did go to) in order to show devotion to his cause. Color tends to do that on the whole, it tends to bring us another dimension of understanding and connection to a photo and scene.

This is not to say, however, that I think they all should have been done in color, and there were a few that I thought had a disservice done to them with the color adaptation. The iconic photo of the sailor and nurse on V-J Day, for instance, is less powerful, as your eyes are drawn to all the color in the signage around Time's Square and leave the impact of the sailor and nurse. Also, the photo of Alfred Hitchcock; at the time that photograph was taken, there was definitely color photography available, especially to portrait photographers who were, possibly (probably?), using medium or large format film. While it's interesting to see, artistic choices like that probably shouldn't be messed with.

So to me, while it was interesting to read the rant, I don't see the big hubbub. Color tends to connect us to a scene much more than monochromatic imagery. Especially when you only know the monochromatic version of the scene.

I say go and enjoy. Marvel at what can be done by a skilled artist and technology!


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