Okay, everybody, take a deep breath and sit back in your chairs. This is going to be a MOAR* of epic dimension.
Those of you who have been reading me over the years know that my tastes in photography are extremely broad. (Those who haven't? Well, I'm telling you now.) I like most all photography. The little photography that I don't like, I recognize is simply not to my taste, or that I am not the intended audience. I don't set myself up as an arbiter of what is or isn't "right and proper" photography, and I am mildly offended when others do. I wrote a column some years back called "Stifling Your Inner Yahoo" that I think should be required reading for anyone who has ever been inclined to dismiss art they don't understand or don't appreciate as worthwhile.
Having said that...
Even. I. Have. My. Limits.
This blows past them and leaves them in shards and shambles.
Caution—while all these photos are safe for work, they are not safe for your sanity nor peace of mind. You've been warned. See "A Vibrant Past: Colorizing the Archives of History" at Time LightBox.
I am appalled. Maybe beyond appalled. Do look through the entire sequence—it just gets worse and worse, until it climaxes in a finale so stunning in its tastelessness that it is almost beyond description. In fact, I won't describe it. I'll let you have the pleasure (I am likely misusing this word) of discovering it yourself.
Hand-tinting of black-and-white photographs was common well into the twentieth century, especially for portraiture. These aren't tinted, they're atrociously colorized. Lest it be argued that this is only a matter of degree, that would be like arguing that stage makeup is no different in import and effect than putting on a clown face. Quantity counts towards quality: Vitamin A is necessary for life; an excess will kill you (avoid the polar bear liver entrée).
When I looked at the nineteenth century photographs, I thought they exhibited considerable hubris to be guessing at colors on which we had no record. It was beyond unlikely to me that Lincoln was anywhere as pink faced and pasty as in photograph #3, but I figured there was probably some record of him having blue eyes, although the degree and kind of blueness was a stretch.
Well, no. Here is Lincoln's own description of himself, in his 1859 biography: "...I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing, on an average, one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes..." (emphases mine).
It took me less than 30 seconds with Google to get to this information. The retoucher didn't even do the most basic research; this pink, blue-eyed Lincoln isn't artistic license in the absence of facts. It's just plain wrong.
What surprised me, though, was that I hated the mid-20th century colorizations even more. In good part I think that's because by then, black-and-white photography had become a medium that photographers had internalized, so lighting and composition were elements used much more effectively. A substantial part of what makes those news photographs so memorable is that they are inherently great photographs, and would be even if the subjects and events had been entirely mundane (as the bread line under the billboard is).
The colorizer has done such an awful artistic job that she has destroyed that. I doubt this could be done well, but she did it badly; her results are truly ineptly composed as color photographs. I'm impressed that the colorizer could have such technical skill and such an utterly lousy eye for photography (this is not the positive kind of impression). The Times Square kiss photograph becomes a jumbled unfocused mess. Ditto the burning monk, and the Vietnam murder. These make Ted Turner's colorizing of old black-and-white films, arguably a capital offense, look like high art.
The freshly-scrubbed migrant mother seems, well, unlikely, and diminishes the horror and despair of the situation that's conveyed in the original. The billboard and breadline photograph is simply screwed up; now the viewer's eye focuses on the billboard rather than the breadline.
Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.
The least visually offensive is probably the Hitchcock portrait. It merely looks like a mediocre job of hand-tinting. Which doesn't make it at all better than the original, but it doesn't make me want to tear my eyeballs out.
I have avoided mentioning the colorizer's name, although the article features her. This is not because I am genteelly trying to avoid a direct attack. It's because I consider this work to be so abominable that I do not want to give her one bit of free publicity. Clueless and visually "tone deaf" as she may be, I am only half so annoyed at her as I am with the editors at Time-Life, who somehow fell into the psychotic delusion that it would actually be a good idea to encourage, commission, and promote this work.
Any number of suitable paired punishments come to mind for their transgressions:
Tarring and feathering.
Drawing and quartering.
Torches and pitchforks.
Take your choice; you can pick one or all. Just remember that it's important to get them in the right order.
Next week I will return to much, much more pleasant topics, I assure you.
Note: superstorm Sandy permitting, I'll be on a plane to Toronto for two weeks starting today; if it turns out that I don't respond to your comments (of which I'm sure there will be many) promptly...or at all...it'll be from lack of connectivity, not appreciation.
*Mother Of All Rants
Ctein draws and quarters on TOP on Wednesdays.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Morgan Consigny: "If you don't laugh, you'll cry."
The Lazy Aussie: "Is it a worse niche than HDR Street?"
cb: "It nicely proves that fancy postproduction can destroy every image."
Phillip E: "My godfather, Tony Maston, used to hand colour portraits in his work as a commercial photographer in the middle part of the twentieth century, so I appreciate that colouring black and white photographs has its place. That said: the colour versions shown juxtaposed with the originals in Ctein's link make the strongest possible case for the often superior emotional power of monochrome! (If one were needed.)"
fjf: "Is there any word on when Frank's The Americans will be reprinted using this technique?"
Mike responds: I know you're joking, but that comment actually shocked me when I read it, viscerally.
Paul: "Erm...I thought they were kind of interesting and reasonably well done. Not life changing either way."
Geoff Wittig: "Colorizing Ann Frank? Seriously? Simply beyond belief, a sign of smarmy corporate sugar-coating that has gone beyond the bounds of normal bad taste and malignant 'Disney-fication' into an entirely new realm of cultural whitewashing. What's next? Colorized Auschwitz? A smiling, avuncular colorized Hitler? Poking my mind's eye out with a fork here."
Martin: "I'm not bothered by these at all. In fact, I find it quite an interesting exercise, particularly so with photographs of pre-20th century figures. Colourising these images, regardless of how well you judge them to have been executed, somehow brings makes the figures and incidents more real. Lincoln lived not in a black and white, sepia toned world, but one filled with the same vibrancy of colours as the one we live in now. However, I have considerably more sympathy for your objection if you view the colourisation of these photographs as somehow vandalising a piece of art. But as an exercise in shifting one's perspective on the past, I rather like them."
Peter Cameron: "I wish I'd heeded the warning. I've now had my fill of horror for this Halloween."
Craig: "Some of these pictures don't look particularly bad, but not a single one of them actually improves the original in any way, so what's the point?
"One detail I find interesting is that the 'art' (if that's the word) of colorizing doesn't seem to have progressed at all in the 30 years since Ted Turner started applying his 'goddamn Crayolas' (as Orson Welles put it) to movies in the 1980s. Back then, I noticed that colorized movies always looked fake. Every leaf was the exact same shade of green, every Caucasian had exactly the same shade of skin, and so on. It always looked very lazy and unimaginative. And these pictures from Time show exactly the same defects.
"Time has never been a particularly high-class publication, but they did at least commit the occasional act of good photojournalism. This collection of vandalized historical images, little better than painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, is a blight on even their lame record."
Roger Moore: "Maybe you 'hated the mid-20th century colorizations even more' because color processes were already available by then. The Lincoln portraits were black and white by necessity. Lincoln, who knew the political value of a good photograph, probably would have wanted them to be in color had it been practical. The 20th Century documentary and news photographers had access to color film and could have been using it if they had wanted. Working in black-and-white was a decision for them, so colorizing their photographs is a much more serious attack on their artistic integrity."
Bill Bresler: "I'm taking this one step further. I'm instagramming her work:
robert e (partial comment): "Ted Turner and the colorization fad of the '80s is a more ambiguous case for me. Tasteless and shocking as it was, so much good came out of it that I can't muster up any of the outrage I felt at the time.
"Previously neglected prints and negatives were carefully restored, copied and preserved in preparation for those colorizing projects (and Turner wasn't the only one, just the most prominent). Much historical research was done on the productions. The controversy, inflamed by Turner's mischievous public remarks and irreverent attitude, led to the National Film Preservation Act, and to landmark court judgements.
"(Unfortunately, none of this could stop a director from mutilating his own property, like a certain trilogy of science fiction fantasy epics.)
"Perhaps not least, the controversy attracted new audiences to these old classics and raised public awareness about the existence and precarious state of a cultural legacy.
"Turner wasn't stupid. He likely foresaw that any controversy and publicity around colorization would benefit his TV station, that the promise of profit would actually benefit movie archives, some of which he owned and some that he wished to acquire. Whether he anticipated it or not, the publicity also helped prime TV audiences for a cable channel dedicated to the appreciation of cinema classics as they were intended to be seen. The Turner Classic Movies channel's mission statement was all about original artistic intent, and even specified 'non-colorized.'"
Bill Tyler: "There's a huge bit of cognitive dissonance here. These are mostly news photos. Time is ostensibly a news organization. But any contemporary news photographer who did this kind of photo manipulation would be fired."
Dave Reichert: "There are times when color adds to a photograph, and lack of color diminishes it.
"On Saturday, July 18, 1970, I was in Times Square, waiting to get together with a girl I had met at summer camp a couple of weeks earlier. Not twenty feet away from me, a fellow carrying two cans stopped, mumbled something to the effect of 'That's enough,' and proceeded to pour the contents of those cans on himself. Then he lit a match.
"I was was 14 years old at the time, and though I've probably seen Malcolm Browne's picture of the burning monk dozens of times over the past forty-some-odd years, I never connected with it on an emotional level until I saw the colorized version.
"Black and white separates a documentary image from the physical reality that it's intended to represent. Sometimes that separation allows an image to transcend its specific, pedestrian origins and rise to become a more meaningful representation of a universal condition—the Eisenstaedt and Bourke-White photos referenced are good examples of this. Other times, that separation can strip an image of some of its literal reality—for me, Browne's burning monk is a clear example of a(n iconic) photo that's less effective than it could be, due to its lack of color."