Note that in what follows, I'm not telling you what to feel about this link; I'm telling you how I feel about it.
Some time ago, I wrote some flippant comments about graffiti artists, and a reader who happens to own a few urban buildings objected strenuously to my insinuations that graffiti could possibly be art and might possibly be worthy of preserving. He felt strongly that I had no perspective on the matter, and regaled us with tales of the difficulties of fighting off the taggers. He considered graffiti to be vandalism. I backed off from my earlier attitude...without sympathizing entirely.
I expect some of you to not sympathize entirely, but the whole project of "colorization" just makes me feel tired and old, and sad. It's vandalism. It disregards the way that work evolves to fit techniques and the way that techniques place work in the flow of time and history, and it completely disregards and disrespects the intentionality of the original photographer. Maybe this or that photographer might even have approved of having dopey cartoon pastel colors slathered all over their work ex post facto, but then, if they're dead they can't say.
I mean, really—poor Bob Willoughby! To make such a garish travesty out of his already perfectly eloquent photograph. The willingness of people to treat the work of other individuals as if it's common property to be defaced at will is just debased, and a disgrace. And tawdry, gauche and tasteless to boot. If I never saw another old movie or photograph "colorized" it would be a relief.
I've always been interested in the highly various ways that different kinds of art is treated in society. The conventions seem to be self-perpetuating, even though they are almost accidental. People very casually deface other peoples' photographs, while they would never in a million years "correct" an old oil painting by doing more painting on top of it (well, except in the notorious case of a certain daft old Spanish lady). If a playwright writes a play, almost anyone who stages the play will respect the play as a work of art possessing inherent integrity, and will make sure that every word is spoken as it's written; directors and actors have traditionally kept up a spirited and fastidious debate about ad libitum, which is commonly kept to a minimum on the stages of the world. But in the case of screenplays, the tradition is the opposite. The story is not considered to be the spiritual, artistic, or ethical property of its author, and bowdlerizers are hired willy-nilly to adulterate and adumbrate the original. There is even a formula, in Hollywood, to determine the "authorship" of a screenplay by counting the percentage of the words contributed by the various tinkerers with the script. In this way, the original author's "Hey, how ya doin'?" can be changed to "Hi there, how are you these days?" by a subsequent script-fixer, and the hack will get the credit for all of the words except "how." In this way, it's even possible for the original author, whose story it was, to be pushed out of the credits altogether, since, by rule, only the top three script-tinkerers get credits.
And even Hollywood wonders why there aren't better scripts in Hollywood. Well, it's no wonder to me: where artists are systematically disrespected, you don't inspire good artists to give their best. The only way a screenwriter can get any respect in Hollywood is if they are also the director and/or the producer. So why the vast difference between the way that playwrights are treated, and the respect they get, and the treatment accorded to screenwriters? Beats me. Even Faulkner got no respect in Hollywood, fer chrissake.
For the record: I object strenously to any future colorization of any of my monochrome photographs. If these words on a wayback machine are wagging a finger at you from beyond my grave, shame on you, ya jerk.
(Thanks to John Camp)
UPDATE: Okay, I get the "no harm done" argument, except from a respect and "spiritual ownership" perspective. They're just JPEGs, people are arguing. If you feel that way.
I get that some of the pictures so treated are not artwork but documentary records, too. And yes, the car crash picture does look nice in faux color.
What I don't get are two claims being made in the comments—to the effect that "there were no color options available then" and "color adds more realism." To the first, in many cases there were color options available. The pictures vary, of course, but color film was available in 1953 when Bob Willoughby took the picture in the post. Pursuant to that argument, even if "the photographer would have chosen color if he could," as some people said, they didn't—and they surely wouldn't have taken the same pictures if they had. Color works inherently differently than B&W, and what makes a good color picture doesn't necessarily make a good B&W picture and vice-versa. Artists adapt to their materials, even if their materials are imperfect.
The second claim is arrant nonsense! The colorizers are guessing at and inventing the colors in their color versions. How does anyone know that Einstein's shorts were blue? That's a guess. I fail to see how fictitious details of a photograph add more realism to it. The colors added bear no relationship to whatever the reality might have been. They're purely decorative, eye candy for those who crave their sugar. That one's a really wrongheaded claim, in my view. —Mike
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jon Bloom: "My reaction to this sort of thing is less outrage (because, hey, nobody is likely to do it to my works) than it is puzzlement. I look at these things and wonder, 'What value did they think they were adding to this?' I'm reminded of what Gary Edgerton said of the colorized Casablanca: 'Casablanca in color ended up being much blander in appearance and, overall, much less visually interesting than its 1942 predecessor.' Exactly."
Joe Holmes: "Interesting detail: the licensing and performance of plays and musical plays requires permission from the play's author to stray from the original concept. Contrast this with music licensing: anyone can cover any song in any way they like just by paying the licensing fee. I ran across an interesting artifact of these rules years ago. I bought a CD by a band called Ye Olde English titled 'Tommy, A Rock-steady Opera,' which was a Ska version of The Who's complete 'Tommy' rock opera. But only a few promo copies of the ska version ever existed (you can still find bootleg copies). Why? Rumor has it that, because 'Tommy' was being produced on Broadway, it was considered a musical play requiring permission of The Who. And the band and the Broadway producers were not agreeing to any competing versions of the musical."
Will: "With you all the way, Mike. Art created in black and white should remain in black and white. But the subject brings up an interesting historical footnote: the colorization of classic films is probably the best thing that ever happened to our film heritage. In order to be colorized, these films had to be thoroughly restored. Because colorization suggested to the rights holders that these films had new value if colorized, it is unlikely these restoration efforts would have occurred otherwise. Many films were saved in this way. But beyond that, public outcry over colorization among film enthusiasts, historians, and critics led to legislative action, including the creation of the National Film Registry, itself a landmark and monumental preservation effort. So vandalism to be sure, but with strangely fortunate consequences. And what of the vandalism itself? It is merely a memory. You can't find colorized versions of Casablanca or It's A Wonderful Life anywhere; but they and Citizen Kane look fantastic, and people will be able to see lesser-known important films like Charles Burnett's A Killer of Sheep for generations to come."
Roy Feldman: "Vandal and Graffiti: Here is a piece I produced for PBS that will air tonight (Same title):
John MacKechnie: "I admit it. I'm an occasional closet de-colorizer. I really dislike the overly photoshopped and HDR'd cartoon-color shots that are in fashion today. So I find myself applying a little Silver Efex Pro ointment. Sometimes it works wonders."
Steve Pritchard: "Ah, Elizabeth Taylor and her legendary violet-coloured eyes. No, hang on, I mean green. No, no, wait a minute.... See, now I'm just confused."