Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Everyone Knows the Past was Sepia-Toned

Posted in Media, Technology by Andy Hall on January 19, 2012

Corey has an interesting post up, tracing the history of efforts to locate the exact location of the famous “Harvest of Death” photos, taken shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg. Corey highlights John Cummings’ recent findings (here and a follow-up here), and asks what his readers think. I don’t know, myself — I’ll have to give it more study — but it did get me thinking about colorizing historic, black-and-white photos.

It’s a practice that’s ubiquitous now; there are entire cable teevee series based largely on retroactively colorizing historic footage, presumably to lend some brilliant new insight into the past. Mostly this technique results in a very poor-quality product, and sometimes it’s not even necessary. Here are two images of the destruction of U.S.S. Arizona, on the left a still frame from actual color footage of the blast, and on the right, a still frame from the video linked above, a colorized version of a black-and-white print of the same footage. (I’ve “flopped” the right frame left-to-right; the footage is also usually shown reversed.) In neither case is the footage very clear, but the original color frame is far more natural than the artificial one on the right:

The practice is even more prevalent in print media; historical magazines do it all the time, presumably because they feel it makes the publication more visually appealing.

I was also reminded of the pitfalls of colorizing images by this article about Swedish artist Sanna Dullaway, who’s taken some of the best-known portraits and news images, shot originally in black and white, and colorized them. Her colorized image of Lincoln appears at the top of this post; other subjects include Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, the summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner during the Tet Offensive, and the famous V-J Day kiss in Times Square.

But her own rendering of the famous “Harvest of Death” image points out one of the obvious limitations of the practice; she gets the uniform colors really, badly wrong. Such errors can be obvious, in cases like this, but in most cases the viewer could have no idea what’s correct. The blue coat, brown vest and scarlet necktie of Lincoln (right), don’t strike me as very plausible — though perhaps they’re more believable than the Great Emancipator’s self-evident spray tan. (Knocking down the color saturation of the image would take care of that distinctly Boehner-like orange glow.)

I’m ambivalent about the practice, myself; I don’t really object to it on grounds of authenticity, if it’s make clear that such an alteration has been made, but it’s rarely done very well. (Sanna Dullaway is much better at it than most Photoshop hacks like me, but even hers are of mixed effectiveness.)

So what do you think? Do colorized images — still or moving — have a place in historical interpretation? What cautions or disclaimers should accompany them? What are the pitfalls, and the benefits? And most important, are there any really good colorizing tutorials out there? 😉

Images: Colorized Lincoln image by Sanna Dullaway. U.S.S. Arizona images by (left) U.S. Naval Historical Center and (right) The Military Channel.

10 Responses

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  1. Donald R. Shaffer said, on January 19, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Andy: how does the colorizer even know what was the color of Lincoln’s suit? It must be a guess because the color coordination for Lincoln strikes me as awkward.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 19, 2012 at 8:53 pm

      I’m sure it’s just guesswork, but not especially believable guesswork IMO. Don’t even get me started on the khaki trousers of the Union troops in her version of the “Harvest of Death” image.

  2. Matt McKeon said, on January 19, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    Colorized images.

    Bad idea. It introduces another layer of distance from the actual object, a layer rife with errors, apparently.

  3. Vince said, on January 19, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    I think Lincoln’s suit color is off by a pretty wide margin. My wife, who’s pretty much an expert on these types of things from a historical fashion standpoint, was very skeptical based on the formality of the picture and the rarity of blue suits from the 1860s. Plus, the color blue apparently does some pretty funny things in wet-plate photography, most of which make it much appear lighter than it actually is (the opposite of the colorizing transformation). More info on colors in wet-plate photos here:

    Click to access photo_article.pdf

    • Andy Hall said, on January 19, 2012 at 11:11 pm

      That’s a neat essay. I’ll have to spend some time with it.

  4. Margaret D. Blough said, on January 20, 2012 at 12:40 am

    Most descriptions that I’ve read of Lincoln talk about him wearing a black suit (usually with adjectives like shabby or ill-fitting). I think I remember seeing one photo of him, at a distance, wearing a white suit.

  5. Michael Lynch said, on January 20, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Personally, I don’t really see the appeal of colorizing old photos. The tones just don’t look natural.

    One caveat, though. We get so used to seeing the Civil War era in black and white that the simple act of remembering that the 1860’s happened in living color can pack a wallop. At the museum where I used to work, we had six volumes of huge, leather-bound scrapbooks compiled by a guy living in Philadelphia during the 1860’s. He’d pasted in a lot of cartoon clippings and lithographs, and the colors were as bright and vivid as the day they’d been printed. The first time I saw them, they blew my mind. On an intellectual level, of course, I “knew” that nineteenth-century Americans lived in a world of color, but I didn’t really appreciate it on a visceral level before that.


  6. Corey Meyer said, on January 20, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I am ok with colorizing photos if they are honest as to what they are doing. If they are trying to pass it off as original than that presents some obvious problems. I think it gives us some ability to see these images in a different light since what the black and white images are really showing is life without the color. I suppose it is just something in me that wishes to see the past as it was really seen in terms of color. I love actual color film of WWII, not the colorized stuff.

    I don’t like it when TV shows call themselves WWII in Color and then it is a mix of real color film and colorized film. The colorized film looks fake and is not need when there is actual color film around to be views. Granted it may not be of the event you want.

    So I guess in a nutshell I am for colorizing as long as it serves a purpose and is on the up and up.

  7. corkingiron said, on January 20, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    I can’t help but approach this topic as a former teacher of History (then again, the same is true of tomorrow’s grocery list). I can see this used in the classroom, in conjunction with photoshop technology – as a brilliant lesson. Give the students the b/w photo of Lincoln and ask them to justify how they would colorize it – would he have had a tan? Would he have a vest of a different colour from his suit? What about his hair? How much grey and why?

    -as an exercise in historical accuracy, meh. But as an example of historical imagination?

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