Historical Photos in Colour

In looking at photography in today’s world, the use of colour in images is of second nature to our eyes. We see the world in colour and expect this to be reimagined in the photographs that we take or look at. I would argue to some extent that the black and white photo almost seems alien to our vision as it relays signals immediately of a past time, of something perhaps unknown to our generation. Some analysts, such as Sayer have argued that the introduction of photography to our society, and the infiltration of a surrounding of images has been fundamental to what makes our world modern, as much as ‘electricity or the internal combustion engine.’[1]

This quest for colour photography is what prompted me to write a review on the comparison between the daguerreotype like photos that become ‘historically iconic’, and a new technique of photography coined colourization. In parallel to the history of photography, where others after the first discovery by Daguerre began to seek methods to overcome the deficiency of colour, this quest has grown a new branch.[2] Obviously techniques have improved since the application of colour by hand onto copper plates, but the desire to see history in colour in order to ‘make sense of it’ seems to me a more commercial endeavour than the Daguerre artistic innovation.

I am specifically going to look at the images of a couple of ‘colourizers’ who have taken black and white images of historical significance, such as familiar portraits and events, and by using computing techniques such as Photoshop have transformed them into photographs that could have been taken yesterday. What I have found interesting about the original image and their updated counterpart contrasts is the reaction from other writers who have described the work as a desecration of authentic images rather than a whole new art form that brings the past to life.[3] The images below by Sanna Dullaway have enabled me to evoke a debate on the verity of the colour photograph and its importance in the modern world. Is the purpose of the exercise really to show the world ‘as it was’ and give us new insights, or do the images destroy a historical ‘aura’ in Benjamin terms which is of no interest to the eyes of modernity.

Some have argued forcibly against the reconstruction of the historical image, suggesting they trash the original image and almost destroy the history that was created by taking the photo at the time of the event. The argument made by the creators of the colourized photo is very interesting; Artist Dana Keller explains that the process which sometimes takes up to five hours on the landscape images, display a new subtlety and layered quality to the photographs with an ‘undeniably artistic use of colour’. Time magazine states that the exercise “maintains the photographic integrity of the originals” while showing what they might have looked like “had colour photography existed at the time”.[4] Keller makes a case against the critics of colourization that it “establishes a renewed familiarity with the past. It can force us to instantly see an old photograph with a new perspective, and truly make it seem as if the past it portrays wasn’t that long ago after all.”[5]  Whatever the opinion, these images are indeed at first glimpse intriguing to view and envisage;

 Abe Lincoln

Figure 1: Abraham Lincoln cira 1863. Photograph : Library of Congress / Abraham Lincoln cira 1863 in colour. Photograph by Sanna Dullaway

 bomb image

Figure 2: A nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, on 25 July 1946. Photograph: Library Of Congress / Colorization of the Bikini Atoll nuclear explosion by Sanna Dullaway

 Buddha monk

Figure 3: Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street, June 11 1963. Photograph: Malcolm Brown / Colorized photograph of Quang Duc’s self-immolation by Sanna Dullaway

This led me to question why, in the words of Keller our modern eyes detach us from photographs of a historical nature, which leads the discussion more to the perspective we take into our vision and perhaps causes the construction of the photo to become a larger event than the event that is documented. Would it then be fair to generalise that the verity of a historical photograph is the black and white composition of which we come to expect, which to me seems a somewhat warped way of thinking about colour photography. Could it be that colour creates a binary relationship where black and white signifies old and historical and colour, an up to date effect?

It would perhaps be useful to bring in the work of Sayer, who reasons that through the camera lens we are able to relive an event repeatedly, and the camera is without peer in historical documentation.[6] In regards to these particular photographs the colourization does not change the event that has occurred, or for me takes any significance away from it. For example, examine Figure 3; the immolation of the Buddhist monk is brought more to life with the lighting of the flames, because it is a key aspect to the photograph. This public act of defiance was supposed to be viewed all over the world, and without the camera perhaps it would not be perceived as so instantly historic. This is not unlike the vast documentation of 9/11, a worldwide event which from the view of the terrorists arguably was a spectacle for the benefits of being recorded on camera. Thus in this sense, conceivably the colourization of such images as Figure 3 enables us to see through the eyes of the viewer, and really question whether these moments are timeless. The idea that time is passing between the two photos placed next to each other is very hard to separate from our experience of the visual world, and sensually the camera in this technique asks us to look at the relation between the isolated moment and ourselves.[7] The ‘colourizers’ then seek to bring us out of isolation, and replace us as the spectator whilst reducing the distance of reality that the past brings in such an image.

Although it would seem as though this obscurity which clouds our understanding of the black and white image of the past, perhaps it is our human nature for us to want possess the images on our own terms which leads us to colourize. “To collect photos is to collect the world.”[8] These words from Sontag’s ‘In Plato’s Cave’ speak with volume in this debate as she suggests that our desire to possess a photograph is in essence the act of appropriating a moment, and I would infer that colourizing photographs does this at its core. The fact that the exercise of colouring original documents in the world of social media and even selling them as Dullaway now does, (Dullaway was commissioned to create a gallery of colourized portraits of Lincoln by Time magazine) ultimately reinforces the idea that we have become consumers of history, and the possessing of historical imaging in our modernity can be seen here.

It would be fascinating to hear the thoughts of Benjamin on the reconstruction of images that have themselves been reproduced for purposes of bringing the masses closer ‘spatially and humanly’ to the art work.[9] ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ bears a large message in regards to the type of reproduction that we see in the images above, and the quest with which they hold at their base. Indeed Benjamin argues “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.”[10] These words bring us back to the idea of the ‘verity’ of an image, or as Benjamin thinks of it the ‘aura’ of a piece of art. The invent of programmes such as Photoshop does indeed allow authorship to the masses, but not in such a culturally revolutionising way as Benjamin would hope. As I understand it, Benjamin would argue that our perception of the universal equality of all things i.e colourizing, is realised in the reproduction of such images, and thus the aura or uniqueness of the original is then lost.[11]

The crux of the arguments of both Sontag and Benjamin brings me to my conclusion on the consequences of the new interesting step in modern photography. The most interesting thing we can take way from the images, apart from perhaps a new perception on the events of the past, is the thought that perhaps the use of colour in photography has become a commodity to update our detached eyes. Significantly these images have become more consumable for the viewer, and even if the photograph is given new life, it is the creation of the photo as an event that is overshadowing the actual content of history captured.

Bibliography

J. Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’ (Penguin Classics, 2008)

W. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (Penguin, 2008)

R. Hirsch, ‘Exploring Color Photography Fifth Edition: From Film to Pixels’ (Focal Press, 2010)

D. Sayer, ‘The Photograph: the still image’, from History Beyond the Text: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (Routledge, 2008)

S. Sontag, ‘In Plato’s Cave’ from ‘On Photography’ (Penguin, 1979)

Webliography

J. Henley, ‘The vivid art of the colorizer’ (The Guardian, November 2013) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/nov/18/vivid-art-of-colorizer

F. Sun, ‘A Vibrant Past: Colorizing the Archives of History’ (Time, October 2012) http://lightbox.time.com/2012/10/25/a-vibrant-past-colorizing-the-archives-of-history/#1

Figure 1/2/3

Sana Dullaway, http://indulgd.com/realistically-colorized-historical-photos/


[1] D. Sayer, ‘The Photograph: the still image’, from History Beyond the Text: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (Routledge, 2008) pp. 48

[2] R. Hirsch, ‘Exploring Color Photography Fifth Edition: From Film to Pixels’ (Focal Press, 2010) Chapter 2, Section 1

[3] J. Henley, ‘The vivid art of the colorizer’ (The Guardian, November 2013) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/nov/18/vivid-art-of-colorizer

[4] F. Sun, ‘A Vibrant Past: Colorizing the Archives of History’ (Time, October 2012) http://lightbox.time.com/2012/10/25/a-vibrant-past-colorizing-the-archives-of-history/#1

[5] J. Henley, ‘The vivid art of the colorizer’ (The Guardian, November 2013) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/nov/18/vivid-art-of-colorizer

[6] D. Sayer, ‘The Photograph: the still image’, from History Beyond the Text: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (Routledge, 2008) pp. 50

[7] J. Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’ (Penguin Classics, 2008) pp. 76

[8] S. Sontag, ‘In Plato’s Cave’ from ‘On Photography’ (Penguin, 1979) pp. 3

[9] W. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (Penguin, 2008) pp. 4

[10] ibid

[11] Ibid

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