Blog Post

The Past in Colour

The Past in Colour

I've just read this fascinating short article on TIME's website, A Vibrant Past: Colorizing the Archives of History. The magazine commissioned an artist to digitally colorise surviving photographs from Abraham Lincoln's presidency. The results are, I think, quite startling and immediate. The artist, Sanna Dullaway, said:

“History has always been black and white to me, from the World War I soldiers to the 1800s, when ladies wore grand but colorless dresses ... By colorizing, I watch the photos come alive, and suddenly the people feel more real and history becomes more tangible.”

There is certainly a very different quality and feel to the original black-and-white portrait of Lincoln below, versus the cleaned-up and polychrome version. This relatively simple use of digital technology greatly alters, in a very literal way, how we see a historical artefact.

Photo colourisation by Sanna Dullaway / Original image from the Library of Congress

They of course make me think of the photographs from the very early twentieth century which used a primitive colour photography technology, and prevent us with sometimes startlingly immediate images of a world which we largely think of in sepia tones: the photography commissioned by Albert Kahn, for instance, or the marvellous Prokudin-Gorskii collection, which document the Russian Empire just on the verge of revolution. Yet those photographs were "born" in colour, so to speak, whereas the Lincoln photos have been altered to appear in colour. We haven't lost the originals, but for me there's a tension between the two—does adding colour remove some of the exercise, some of the joy, of using our historical imagination? Does it potentially destabilise some of the artefact's historical integrity—which one do people start thinking of as "real"? The carefully composed black-and-white image which captured a three-dimensional, polychrome world, or the new version which tries to "restore" colour? Are these reservations less important than the opportunity to reach new audiences and get them thinking about the past?



If adding color helps people view historical subjects as "real people," then I'm all for coloring. I think one does need to understand the techniques better in order to answer whether coloring distorts historical integrity.  But, my first reaction is positive. I wouldn't care so much about "historical imagination" when it comes to coloring.  I'm more concerned with the techniques.  Also, I do think that in this case anxiety over potential problems should take back seat to the goals of reaching new audiences and rendering the past "real."



I think this same sort of battle gets fought when books are the inspiration for movies. One is always tempted to measure the movie by the book, or vice versa. But they're two separate things: they each have their merits and they each have their drawbacks. The same may be true for color v. B&W photographs. I think that as long as the color photographs are presented as colorizations of a B&W photo, not as the original of a photo, then I think there could be value in the project. 

For myself, I don't actually find the colorized photos more compelling; maybe it's the sense of age or gravity present in the B&W, or something else. It would be interesting to consider the differences in affect between the two options.