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.

Looking Closely at Old Photos

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on March 19, 2011

One of the (many) things to love about the online collections at the Library of Congress is that many of the images there are made available in high- or very-high resolution, in TIFF format. The glass plate negatives used at the time often captured far more detail that is apparent when the image is reproduced in a book, or at a size that fits conveniently on a computer monitor.

Not long ago I used a Library of Congress image of the ferry connecting Mason’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) to Georgetown. But looking more closely at that image, I keep coming back to one of the privates at the landing, standing guard while his colleagues check the passes of people coming off the ferry. There’s nothing particular about his pose; he’s standing in profile, facing to the left, seemingly oblivious to the photographer capturing his likeness. But even though I know next to nothing about period firearms, his weapon strikes me as unusual. Is that a patch box on the stock? What sort of bayonet is that? Do these details provide clues as to his unit?

And what’s up with the cut of those trousers?


Houston City Marshal

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on July 10, 2010

Shannon Perich, Associate Curator for the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History in Washington, is looking to identify this man, photographed at the Barr & Wright studio in Houston, probably in the 1870s. A note scratched into the emulsion on the edge of the plate suggests he ordered a “½ dozen plain” cartes-de-visite. On his vest he wears a badge reading, “City Marshal.” Perich suggests this may be R. Van Patton, who was appointed City Marshal in 1873, but there were others who served in that role during that decade as well. And it may not even be a Houston official — perhaps a lawman from another city who happened to sit for a portrait while visiting the Bayou City. In any case, it’s a great photo.

h/t J. R. Gonzalez, Houston Chronicle.