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Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Surprised myself: With three exceptions, I prefer the colorized versions.

I agree with Martin. These photos cannot be defended as art or improvement of the original in any way. But, as a one-off intellectual exercise, they do remind us that the past was not b&w/sepia. I think not enough people are able to bridge that disconnect, and there is a visceral reaction to seeing figures of history in a "modern" representation, one that you might find on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper.

I don't see this as sacrilege or as diminishing the originals.

This is different from colorizing old movies, because (most of) those don't claim to be literal social documents.

I was once wholly and fully against colorization, and I still am to a great extent. As Ctein says in one of the comments above, one of the biggest problems with this particular batch is the lack of sensibility that was brought to the project. Seems like colorization for its own sake.

One thing that changed my mind somewhat, and under some circumstances, is the WWII documentary series "Apocalypse: The Second World War (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apocalypse:_The_Second_World_War) It's a particularly unsettling documentary series that focuses very much on the destruction of the war and the human -- in particular, the civilian -- toll.

That sort of thing is hard enough to watch, but in this case all of the B&W footage (which means about 95% of it) was colorized. It wasn't all particularly well done; some was a bit garish, some less so. Some was really well done.

But here's the killer: we're so used to seeing film from that war as grainy, blurry, and black and white, which gives it a very distant feel. But in this case the colorization gave it an immediate *right now* feel, which really drove home that human toll and made it seem real and visceral and not just something from mouldering history books.

The series is not without its faults, but if you're interested in the world wars and think you've seen and heard everything, then check out that series and be prepared to feel gutted at the end of it (thanks largely but not entirely to the colorization).

Well, everyone has a right to their opinion & you definitely have yours-LoL!

I think they should be left as they were....It tells their original story. It's like someone else painting over a Picaso. Just not good taste.

And why would we alter them? What about the rights of our children? And their children?

I actually like the pictures. I do enjoy the originals as they are and some convey more emotion in black and white but on the same note, the coloring gives a different feel and can evoke a different feeling in people. As they are I think she did a good job in coloring them.

Craig: "Time has never been a particularly high-class publication..."

A small voice of protest against the generalization. There was a long time period of decades when it was the magazine of record for reporting on national and world affairs.

The colorizing was particularly unnatural and scary. I couldn't get over Lange's piece. No way was the reality that happy. Could you imagine what these great photographers would think? I did however find your article most enjoyable. The instagram comment literally made me bust out in laughter. thanks guys :)

Really? I kind of like it. For some of the photos, it make the people seem more like real, like you and me.
Different strokes....

Kinda cute ...

Not really. The only saving grace is that each image is next to an original - judge for yourself.

To get the rollover in firefox 16.0.2 you need to have pop-up blocking off, or an exception for the site - funny Mike.

Blue eyes aside, I thought the Lincoln pictures were interesting if only to provide a more realistic rendering of how Lincoln actually looked. Yes! Lincoln was a flesh-and-blood man and not a distant black-and-white myth. Cool.

It's Halloween, after all ..

A few of them were---or would have been---interesting to me (Lincoln et al at Antietam) , if they had been properly researched to ensure that they were as historically accurate as possible.

If someone took an old newspaper article and decided to modernize the language and in doing so introduced factual errors and historical inaccuracies, I don't think it would be appreciated no matter how wonderfully written it was. I feel the same about photographs like these. If someone is going to "modernize" them, then they owe it to viewers to research for historical accuracy, or else add some sort of "artist's interpretation" statement.

In addition, I don't think the colorization improved many of the photos. The one of the burning monk in Vietnam, is a possible exception, but the Dorothea Lange image? No.

I also assume that even if color were not available, or not chosen by a photographer, that the person made some choices that he/she would not have made had they used color. Would Lange have done anything differently with her photo if she had taken it in color?

Still, the possible historical inaccuracies are what bothers me most about most of these. Were Time as serious news magazine, I'd be more bothered, but it ain't and is hasn't been for years. I suppose that I should take it with the same seriousness that I would had MAD magazine published them.

But the contrary can be said as well, when taking a colour photo, and switching it to BW, specially with current technologies.

The B/W conversion is usually very much used to turn mediocre colour photos into more punchy images. That is what is happening here, when turning a BW photo into a colour one, it does loos quite some punch.

Dear Kevin,

An always-interesting question that was raised really seriously in the Vietnam era. Many folks feared that color, first used heavily in that war, would prettify the horror too much. Of course that turned out to be anything but the case!

The TOP readership is so diverse that I'm sure there will be some folks here who feel that way ( about the Vietnam and/or the FSA work). Obviously I am not one of them, but I will be most interested in others' responses. I'd guess it will not be the common sentiment.

My problems with the coloring is not the existence of color per se but that, as I said repeatedly, this is inept. Really, truly inept. Sometimes I have to color/colorize in my restoration work. I am not close to being a master of it in my practice, but I know what is required for it to be done well (which is how I know I'm not very good). This stuff is clown-face; it's crap. It offends me because it screws up the meanings and import instead of reinforcing them (which it could do, at least in theory).

pax / Ctein

Dear Richard,

I hope Mike will put in his thoughts, because he's much better at this sort of analysis, but with that said...

I'm wondering if there might not be a cultural difference in perception. I don't think most Americans look at that photo and see it as prettifying or romanticizing photography. The photo is on the right side of that sensibility.

In fact, much of its impact come from it being very close to the line-- she's not far from being pretty. The pose is not far from being accepting or beatific or even slightly happy. It's so close... But it's not. At least, as Americans would read it. Which makes it that much more powerful in its impact, because viewers can imagine how the world it shows might be different. It's not an unimaginable change, an inevitable gulf.

Another way it works is that she is within hailing distance of pretty. Experiments show that people think bad things should happen to ugly people, not pretty people. That replicates cross-culturally (although what constitutes "pretty" is local, of course). I don't know that it's a moral judgement, it might just be that people identify with attractive images so its easier for their brains to subconsciously say, "Hey, that could be ME." So it registers as worse when something bad is happening to someone nice looking. For Americans, her visage in this photo is a very self-identifiable one. Which makes the situation feel more wrong.

Anyway, that's my American take on it. Whether the visuals read the same way across cultures I couldn't say, but it's possible they don't.

And if not, then the colorizer might be excused for screwing up the mood with that so-inappropriate fresh-scrubbed color, as a misread across a cultural divide... If this were an isolated instance. But since most or all her renderings screw up, the core problem isn't with this one interpretation, it is that she's just plain tone deaf, photographically speaking.

pax / Ctein

I actually liked some of these. In most cases I prefer the black and white image, but the colourized Hitchcock portrait was quite good and I enjoyed some of the Lincoln images, accurate or not, he seemed very much real and alive in the colour versions. I can think of many things to be outraged about, this isn't one of them.

Can we expect this to be followed by a series of Eggleston's photos to be reworked in B&W?

I agree with Ken if you don't like them don't look. Another's talent is just that, theirs. I think dissecting another person's imagination leaves a lot to be desired. I also agree with David Bennet's comments as well. Maybe you should read the rationale behind book burning.

If you have blown past your limits maybe it's time to look in another box?

As it happened, I looked at a print edition of Time magazine, the one with the cover story about Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln in the movie.

The print version of the Lincoln portrait above is quite different. Oddly, the eyes are colored brown, not blue, as in the online version and above, and the skin tones are rendered as dark complexioned Caucasian.

Since the same photoshop artist gets credit for both, I wonder if Time's online photo folks slyly changed the eye color to blue and lightened the skin tone, merely to make the picture startle even more, onscreen...

No offense, but why not just fix it? If he was dark with gray eyes, make him so.

These are the first photos in the world that look better on my cheap Dell laptop's screen than on my 24". Perhaps they're just optimized ;)

Interesting to read the comments this time.
Can't help to think that if Ctein had made his comment go the other way. Saying how instead how interesting it was to see all these images in a new light. Get a glimpse of how the reality actually was 100 years ago. Many of you would instead agreed with him.

It doesn't bother me so much to see these colorized photos in a new way. And this has nothing to do with the fact the person who did this is from my country.

Remember seeing some other very early color photos. Think it was from the 1930s. It really made me think what it was like to live at that time. Not quite as colorless as I had been led to believe from my parents old albums from their childhood.

A more important question to me is the intention of the artist.

I agree that these are pretty terrible and tasteless. The only photo I found somewhat interesting is the "American Way." I've seen it many times, and while I knew on some level that the people standing in line were black, it didn't really hit home until I saw this version. That adds another layer to the photo IMO. But I still don't like it.

I'm as much of a yahoo as anybody, but this critique feels dangerously close to the bottomless chasm of photography-as-photocopying that makes many a wealthy camera owner a complete bore.

The original photos were themselves manipulations of reality, images which captured not just a set of facts but also a sense of the feeling. The text made clear that the artist's intent was not forensic reconstruction but emotional manipulation.

As an alternative, see these photos taken very early in the 20th century, when color was possible but extraordinarily laborious:


ohmyeffingctein! I respect your opinion however I don't agree with it. I actually found the colorized photos quite interesting in a historical sense.

You know, I'm not sure I agree entirely. Mostly. But not entirely. Especially when it comes to picture No. 11 in their online gallery. Suddenly Lincoln, the man, is sitting there looking out very frankly at the camera (no photographer's posed gesture) and he seems more real. He looks like a person, not a character in an historic photo, but a real person. In that regard I appreciate the opportunity to see Lincoln in this way. I'll go back to preferring the original photograph soon enough. But for a little bit this opened a window for me to see something I really hadn't expected about the man himself.

That's a valid response. As was Dave Reichert's, certainly. As I said, this post was simply my own personal comment to Ctein's "Ohmyeffingod" post. As such it's not necessarily any better or worse than anyone else's comment. Just more visible. And a bit (self-indulgently) longer. [g]


How sure are we that this is meant to be construed as serious? 'Dullaway' - what a great name to give a clue its a hoax. Black and white to colour - just add Dullaway.

[Ed. Note: I have disallowed several other comments making fun of the retoucher's name as being not in the friendly spirit of the site, but Nigel actually makes a good point...maybe it is a clue. At least it wasn't done by Hugh Adder or Mo Kroma--that would give the game away.]

Senna Dullaway is real (and Swedish!). It's not a hoax.


Förr i färg == "old paint"?

She is making a book which will focus on the American Civil War.

I find they range from bad to creepy. Several of them are images caught in a moment of incredible tragedy. The fact someone spent untold hours trying to improve on this I find disturbing.

I am going to stop converting my color photos to B&W in protest, :)

Wow, too many comments to read through. I just want to add that the eyes in the Lincoln photo attached to the article ARE grey. It is a bluish grey (but grey eyes always are). So I think she got that right at least.

the horror

Dear Torquil,

Not according to the readily available records, in this case. Painters of the time describe his eyes variously as ranging from hazel to a greenish grey. No one describes them as bluish. They also consistently report the darker skin tones Lincoln himself mentions.

This is not hard information to find. Took me moments. The colorizer just didn't effin' care.

pax / Ctein

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