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.