« A Cool Shot | Main | Let Me 'Splain... »

Monday, 26 August 2013


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Might be an appopriate time for a brief explanation of moral rights and the tradition and application of moral rights in various countries. This happens to be an issue I feel strongly about, i.e., I support artists having unequivocal moral rights over their work.

Last week, in the comments sections of other photography sites, I spent some time arguing in about this kind of thing. I had to stop because it was making me too angry.

There are people--I can hardly believe this--who simply cannot see the difference in truthfulness between a black-and-white photo (which fairly faithfully records what was before the camera, merely leaving out color), and the colorized photo (which presents someone's (not necessarily intelligent) guess about the colors that were left out. They consider the black-and-while equally or more deceptive. These people deserve to be deceived in everything, always, because they will never notice that they are being lied to and now I have to stop and take a walk to get my blood pressure down.

After viewing these colorized photographs, I must confess to an uneasy mixture of disgust and fascination.

The former emotion stems from an appreciation of the originals as works of art that must be allowed to stand as originally created. From that perspective, such colorization is certainly a defilement, in the same vein as classic literary works "adapted" for consumption by children or modern readers who are put off by unfamiliar vocabulary and writing styles.

The latter feeling arises from viewing these images simply as information about the past, unencumbered by consideration of the people who collected that data. In this context, colorization facilitates a more visceral connection with the past as having been real, rather than mere fable. (Of course, that in itself is another kind of falsehood, since the colors are only guessed, not known -- akin to displays in a natural history museum that show dinosaurs as they would have looked in the flesh.)

I guess I'm asking the well-worn question, should documentary photography be considered art or simply record? The latter view necessarily does violence to the former, but is it always wrong?

Generally agree regarding changes to original content within the same medium. However, a movie is not a book. In my experience, most movies based on books never produce the same sense of involvement. Frequently the book is so imbued with multiple threads that the best the movie adapters can do is strive for some sense of what the book is about. I'm not sure that a book author can step back from their book and produce a movie script that will work as a movie. So, at best, they get credit for "based on the book by..." but not credit for the screenplay.

[Hi Bob, Just to be clear, I'm not talking about book adaptations. I'm talking about original screenplays intended to be screenplays.

I'll refer you to John Gregory Dunne's book about Hollywood, "Monster," for a more detailed and knowledgeable view. --Mike]

I'm mostly with you about colorization--I certainly react weirdly to seeing the original Star Trek in color, and I understand some idiot has even colorized part of The Wizard of Oz! Inconceivable!

(I first saw them on B&W television).

And, as for plays, Shakespeare is nearly never performed as the script reads (setting aside the question of which historical script is canonical; we don't follow any of them). (But that's far less common with more recent playwrights, for whatever reason; either they wrote more to the length needed for a modern performance, or directors fear the revenge of their ghosts more).

Can reality be vandalized?

Case in point: Hollywood film Argo which won an Oscar: turning reality into a fiction, and then turning around and presenting it as reality!

Mike, I agree entirely but plays are not immune. For a start, those which are necessarily translated before production are vulnerable. I'm sure you remember elderly schoolmasters shaking their heads about bits of modern translations and saying "That's not in the Greek". Even with a reasonable translation, settings can totally distort.

I remember a TV production of Antigone a few years ago. The sets were dressed up in a way that owed far more to "Triumph of the Will" than to anything to do with 5thC Athens. Shakespeare too often gets mangled by 'with-it' directors.

Seems to me that if you want a modern play or a modern photo about an historical subject, write it or make it rather than trashing an original.

"Vandalism" is the perfect word to describe colorized photos. Simply perfect.

Just ugly.

My own feelings are not quite so absolutely polar as yours. I'm far more open to re-interpretation of photos than films ((I will not watch a pan-and-scan movie any longer), particularly when the work is thoughtfully done.

"I mean, really—poor Bob Willoughby! To make such a garish travesty out of his already perfectly eloquent photograph."

I invite you, and others, to consider your reaction if "poor" Bob Willoughby's photo started as a color image and was re-rendered as b&w.

[Hi Ken, Why would my reaction be any different? It's the same thing. I have a friend who became a color photographer early on, before many others, when it was still unpopular. One of his pet peeves that always made him mad was to find B&W reproductions in books with the legend, "original in color." I agreed.

I even did a post once about a picture I felt would be stronger in B&W, but I concluded that I had to defer to the photographer's choice. --Mike]

I am with you on this topic. I can not find any good use of colorization. The thought of Casablanca in color makes me sick. I did not know a colorized version existed. I guess you have to put me down as one of those black & white nerds who doesn't understand colorization.

My reaction to this round of colorization was simply that it's about attention seeking publicity. I don't see much artistic merit in simply colorizing some classic photos.

But I think there's possiblity that aome new and interesting work could be created based on the earlier work, just that it requires some genuinely fresh ideas.

Well, I do notice the black and white. The black guy is working and the white people are the audience.

Unfortunately, I know a few people who will not do more than glance at any b+w, or even colour-film, photos because the saturation is too low (or absent, of course). They consider the pictures to be old, broken and worthless.

Something wrong in edumakashun somewhere I think.

Usually, I do not like the color treatment to B&W photos. And I hate the graffitis on my building and surroundings.

Oddly enough, I have found picture No6. (Auto Wreck in Washington D.C, 1921) quite interesting. Was it because it does look like well done and relatively subtle compared to the others?

It may be like graffitis. The vast majority of them here in Montreal are utterly ugly. Yet, once in rare while, I do lift the camera to snap one.

Go figure.

Right on Mike. I love color, but this whole idea of thinking that a modern so-called artist can add value to a classic work of photography or cinematography by colorization, "just because they can" with new technology, both disappoints and disgusts. I have a few of these works in both media that I foolishly purchased in recent years which sit collecting dust. The true artist's original work far outclasses the counterfeits.

And to multiply the effect of this plagiarism (as I personally would call it), it seems to have denigrated the haunting beauty of earlier colorization by original artists. I am thinking here of the wonderful hand colorized japanese photography ca. 1860 to 1900, and those captivating daguerrotypes I have seen in some collections. They may share some of the artificiality of technique, but they are authentic, and that makes all the difference.

I don't entirely agree, though I mostly do. When photographs are made explicitly as art works, then I think they should be left alone. When photos involve the news, or, in some cases, are documentary, then I won't automatically reject colorization. For example, I think the colorized version of the Hindenburg gets you much closer to the feeling of the spectacular disaster than the black and white version; and I suspect that the photographer would have liked shooting in color if he'd had that choice. I also enjoyed seeing the Dorothea Lange photo in color. In each case, the colors are not arbitrary -- they could easily be picked up from known colors on the signs, clothing, etc. in the Lange piece, and the color of the zeppelin and of burning gas in the Hindenburg case. The photo that I think was most damaged by colorization was the unemployed lumber worker: the color version simply doesn't have the impact of the B&W -- your eyes drift too quickly to the color in the woman in the background.

I have to say that if the colors in the Walt Whitman photo are accurate, I enjoy knowing what he looked like (in color) though the B&W is a better photo, as art.

I should add that I think there's a huge difference between colorizing stills and colorizing a film. A film has to be colorized in a mass-processing way, because there are too many individual shots to do anything else. But with a still photo, a good deal of research could be done to produce quite an accurate image. With art, accuracy (in any alteration) is not as important as artist intent; with news photos, where the original intent was to produce as accurate an image as possible of an event, with little artist's intent involved, then a colorized version may be both the most accurate and the most affecting version, and truer to the scene as seen by the photographer.

IMHO, although I gotta confess, I'm not all that humble about it.

Technology is wonderful. Sometimes not so much.

Crap like this shows the necessity for capital punishment.

I don't know much about copyright law, but would this come under the definition of 'fair use' i.e. could these people potentially sell their colourised images as original art? I hope and assume this is not the case?

If this is correct, at least the damage is limited to a partially informed audience i.e. they presented explicity as being colourised from B&W originals, and hopefully nobody will assume they are exactly true to life. It angers me when the originals aren't credited or linked to though!

I'm really not a fan of this trend either, for all the same reasons you and other commentators stated, but at least the original images are unaffected and undamaged, unlike a vandalised building or rewritten screenplay.

Oh and regarding B&W-ing of images - the website zeissimages.com recently introduced a feature where you could click a button to display any submitted image in B&W i.e. the website would instantly convert my submitted colour images into a B&W display with no regard for my own wishes or interpretation.. hence i'm now removing my images from that website!

Might as well draw a mustache.

Boy, Mike, what a big bag of a variety of worms you just opened!! I think that both you and your urban friend are right - and wrong. First, what is vandalism? Sure, painting a swastika on a synagogue or mosque is vandalism. But what about an 'unauthorized' wall painting, say by the latest art favorite Banksy? Or one authorized by the city to enhance a neighborhood? And what about the long history of hand coloring photographs before the era of color film? Neither the photographer or subject (who probably paid extra for coloring) objected if it was done well. And what about the practice of taking a photo in color and then converting it to black and white, which is done by many phtographers. There are many factors to consider in evaluating any one of these practices. Sometimes they harm, sometimes they improve, and as in the case of the photos on that website, they can be irrelevant and meaningless. Someone went to a lot of trouble for no good reason. Most of these were B&W because it was the only option. Would the photographer have used color if available? Maybe. Would it have affected the meaning and impact of the shots? NO. So for me, the effect of the website is an emphatic EHHH... But its sure to get you a lot of comments.

Dear Folks,

Those who wish a more restrained perspective on the issue may wish to reread this:



pax / Ctein

Regarding your friend's displeasure at having his color work reproduced as B&W in books, I sympathize. The suggestion is this happened some decades back when his use of color was of note in the B&W preference of the time. Four color book and magazine printing used to be hugely more expensive than B&W and those reproducing his work most likely did not have a budget for color (my guess). These days, "Original in color" is rarely seen as a caption with color printing becoming prevalent. If he was benefiting from the exposure being so featured, I hope it lessened his disappointment.

"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..."

The Chapman brothers did. Well, not an old oil painting. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/mar/31/artsfeatures.turnerprize2003

At least what they did was for art-philosophical reasons. Colourising black and white photos because it can be done is simply crass.

I don't have as strong opinions about colorization as you and other do. However, I usually don't like the results of the process. In the case of these particular photographs, the colorization seems to me to have removed their historical significance as photographs, while moving the derivative works closer to the realm of paintings. Most of the finals appear more like prints of watercolor paintings, then they do photographic reproductions. I don't particularly like them, but I'm not vehemently disgusted by them either.

I don't mind graffiti in some contexts. I don't think it fits everywhere, but it lends a bit of interest to some bleak industrial landscapes.

But I cannot conclude that anything which does alter the original work in any way could be described as "vandalism". At worst it's an exercise in poor taste, at best a curiosity. But it does not destroy or devalue the original.

Perhaps Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is also vandalism? After all I much prefer the original piano version, and I generally hate cover versions of songs, but as long as the original exists I am not going to complain. I can enjoy whichever version I like, including Jeff Buckley's version of "Alleluia" which is the one exception to my covers rule.

From my perspective I had never seen most of those photos before, and maybe I never would have had they not been straw manned as vandalism. They are not vandalism to my knowledge the original photos are not defaced or destroyed and they have not been affected by the creation of the colorized photos. I thought that the originals were represented and respected the colorized photos don’t appear to be an attempt at replacing the original. It is annoying when they are presented without the original but that is a different argument. I always enjoy colorized photos specially of documentary photography it helps me to connect with the subjects and I generally prefer the originals. I also disagree with victimising Bob....

Wow I’m being really negative here which is surprising cause I really enjoyed the post, I got to discover some beautiful photos I had never seen before and I found out about an old lady who destroyed a beautiful fresco (for some reason these type of stories really tickle my funny bone no good deed goes unpunished!). It’s also great to see a few pool shots on video cant wait to bust that out for the lads. Anyway as always thanks for the blog and the hard work.


Every picture you show looks "better" in color, but they're all DOCUMENTARY in nature in which colorization increases the amount of information presented, (even the portraits).
But I can't imagine coloring "Pepper #30" or most other B&W masterpieces whose appeal depends on visual rather than intellectual content.
On the other hand I wonder if Louis Hine's "Little Spinner" would be enhanced or denigrated with the application of a little Autochrome-like pastel enhancement.

I don't have a visceral negative reaction to this sort of thing; songs have been covered, Shakespeare has been edited and transposed to anachronistic settings, films have been remade, and all of those things have been done well.

Every time someone new prints a photograph taken by someone else (as you, Mike, did with that Dorothea Lange) they are fundamentally taking liberties with the intent of the original artist.

Taken individually, I kind of appreciate some of the attempts at fully naturalistic color, like "Auto Wreck in Washington D.C, 1921" and "‘Old Gold’, Country store, 1939." They don't rival the originals as art (I'm not going to be buying prints of any of them, that's certain), but it's kind of interesting from a historical perspective. I think the ones that adopt some sort of faux-oldey-timey color palette (e.g. "Young boy in Baltimore slum area, July 1938") are pointless and meaningless. "View from Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee
During the Civil War, 1864" is the worst of them all; it turns a photo of historical and artistic interest into another oversaturated, over-'Shopped Flickr contribution.

My final question, and the one that puzzles me most: Who the hell colorizes a photo of Elizabeth Taylor and gives her green eyes?

Not having grown up with B&W photography (as snapshots), B&W has always represented either Art or History - but, in a sense, not reality.

Looked at as Art, this colourisation is troubling. Looked at as history, it is interestings. Whilst, clearly the colourisation is not going to be accurate, my gut feel is that these give a sense of reality to history. In a certain respect it makes history more real and reminds me that whilst all of these photos were in B&W, reality was not.

If one only sees this sort of thing occasionally, it does make one look and think harder about the images and about historical figures.

So, as a historical excercise, it is at least interesting, but as an artistic one, it rarely has anything to offer.

I can't stomach colorized films, but (much as I favor B&W myself) I see these colorized photos more as curiosity pieces. Interesting, and somewhat valuable curiosities.

We often see the past through a B&W haze of abstraction- yeah, it happened but it wasn't quite as "real" somehow as things are today. Colorized photos (when well done) can help remind us that these people were not just B&W caricatures of human beings- they were flesh and blood creatures with real life relationships, lives and emotions, triumphs and failures, just like us.

I think these colorized photos can really help us connect to our own past, if only on an emotional level- not that they should ever replace or be taken as the equal of the original by any means.

You couldn't sympathize with owner of buildings whose hard paid for real life property was vandalized and that was incurring expenses due to that vandalism but you are outraged that few virtual pixels got color info while nothing / nobody got hurt?

I was recently complemented on my ability to choose which of my work I want keep in color or change to B+W. I was asked do I think or plan the shot in B+W, to which I responded yes I do for the most part. Some images I take, I know will work best in B+W and not color. But then I have the choice, most of those early photographers didn't. Did they plan the shot in color? Would they have been happier if they had the ability to take it in color? We don't know. B+W is what they had and therefore that is what they used, there was no artistic decision. I wouldn't want my B+Ws to be colorized because I made the decision to go B+W.
There is also a historical perspective to take into account as it is very rare to see color from those era's.
I for one was not turned away by the images. They added a new perspective to the image that I wouldn't have imagined as well as they were mostly all very well done, which surprised me as I thought they were going to be garish.

Did any of the colorizers featured in the link state that they were "fixing" the original photo? Are they forcing you to accept their reinterpretation instead of the original? I did not read the background story of every altered photo, but based on the ones I read, they were just curious to see some of their favorite historical photos in color. At worst, they did it just because they can. And it's not as if they were damaging the original negatives.

I think some of these were done quite well.I particularly enjoyed seeing colorized versions of photos that were taken at a time when color film was not an option.

If you prefer the original, the original intent of the artist, or the version you are used to, that's fine. These damn colorizers with their crazy Photoshop aren't taking that away from you.

[Hi Keith, Please read the first sentence of the post again. I can't say it any more plainly than that. --Mike]

Art is a matter of opinion. Vandalism is an issue of property rights. These are two entirely different things. Vandalism may or may not be art, but if you paint the Mona Lisa on my garage door without my permission it is vandalism.

I don't quite understand the vociforous reaction to these colorizations. No one is destroying the originals, they are just experimenting with what they might look like in color. I actually think it's rather interesting to see famous B&W photos this way. In any event, I was amused by the statement that "they would never in a million years 'correct' an old oil painting by doing more painting on top of it" and the comment that they "might as well draw a mustache" in light of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L.H.O.O.Q..

I don't like the colorizations, and I don't think they're respectful, but I disagree with your comments about other arts being treated with respect.

Art acquires stature as a consequence of age. No one would Bowdlerize a play these days, but the very word "Bowdlerize" comes from a man who mutilated Shakespeare to fit the tastes of his day. No one would hack a Rembrandt apart today, but the Nightwatch we see today was cut down in the past, simply to make it fit in a space that was smaller than the canvas. Another hundred years or so, and people will see colorized photographs as tacky and tasteless. Screenplays may follow suit...or not. There's a probably too much money involved to change that industry.

Also, as a postscript: Great masterpieces of art are still appropriated, altered, reinvented, mutilated, vandalized, destroyed, and transformed to this day. And I don't have a problem with it. Sometimes it makes great art. Sometimes it makes a great statement. Sometimes it makes both. Sometimes it makes neither. Consider: LHOOQ.

[Hi James, You make a very good point about the age aspect, with excellent examples, but I don't think that entirely explains all the differences. For example, a Sam Shepard or David Mamet play would never be put on with a third of its words changed.

I even wonder if someone who's more knowledgeable about these things could point to a single modern playwright whose work has received very different treatment on the stage and on the screen. For instance, I know that David Mamet has done all three things--written stage plays, had stage plays adapted to the screen, and written screenplays. It would be very interesting to me to hear what he has to say about my thesis in this post, not that I could get him to comment. --Mike]

Modifying an existing piece of art into something else has a long and honorable history. Walker Evans took perfectly good color circus posters and turned them into black and white. How is that different than turning something black and white into color? It really isn't. Now, is it done well or poorly? That is another question. The Japanese archers picture is interesting in that, if you look at period Japanese photographs, they've been colorized with oils. Maybe the example was a black and white version of a colorized print that was re-colorized. And Marcel Duchamp did paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

These don't bother me. My reaction is that these people have too much time on their hands. I have to believe there's a commercial value in being able to colorize old photos and as practice or demonstration pieces, maybe it's worthwhile.

I tend to think that I see in color; that is, that I factor color into my compositions. Not always, but many of my favorite photos actually make use of color; the color isn't simply "there". I can't see monochrome (though admittedly I haven't put a lot of effort into it). I have a few good monochrome photos from my film days, but it was never more than a distraction. Occasionally, I'll find a digital photo that looks good in black and white, but it always feels like cheating, because it's usually found by experimentation. Hmmm ... this one has distracting color ... wonder if it would look good in b/w ? Nahhh ... what about this one ?
And so when I look at these colorized photos, my first response was that they remove a level of abstraction - they make it closer to a scene that you can "step into" and maybe look more like reality and less like photos. On second glance, they look more cinematic than realistic. But in all cases, the color does not improve the photo or add to the composition; the color is never a factor in the success of the photo the way it is in a truly well done color photo. And so it all seems pretty pointless, except as an interesting illustration of what it might have looked like, and a practice exercise for someone looking to develop colorizing skills.

Mike, I am sorry that you have such strong negative feelings about colorization. I agree with Stan B. and Richard that colorized versions can show the photographs in a different, and sometimes informative, light. I respect the contention that the original work has an integrity and intent determined, as much as possible, by its creator. Even so, I feel that derivative works can offer value, and show that someone was inspired enough by the original to re-imagine it, may have done so with respect and appreciation, and may even expect that their own work will eventually be adapted by others. And yes, of course, there are plenty of crass and heartless adaptations.

It might be interesting to explore your feelings on this topic further. You are a very thoughtful, honest, and introspective person. I think you would uncover even greater depths of perception and passion, from which we could all learn.

Question is, would these photographers have objected? Indeed, if they had had fast fine grained colour film, would our history all be monochrome?

They may well have chosen to shoot in colour if newspapers could print it.

Hi Mike
You opened a can of worms! Adding my own two wiggles, I must say I'm with Ari, John aand Keith above, with a twist.
A documentary photo or portrait originally shot in BW just because there were no color options, well it grates less than the defacing of an Adams or Weston (but likely also an Erwitt!). That doc would probably have been shot in color today.

However, colorizing grates even there because yes it seems morr realistic except that it is not (1) because who knows what the real colors were (2) most of the time it's pastels that pretend a patina of history when the work is done today, and therefore funnily deceive you twice over (morr than if it was colorized in bright velvia hues!) and be seen as a 'real' document when it is not. That's a travesty and dangerous indeed, historically speaking.

Still, Andy Warhol might have taken a Weston pepper, made it blue then pink and yellow and it might now be worth more than the original. Art knows no boundaries, so long as it is explicit and therefore not 'fake'...

So, it cuts both ways. I will survive knowing ot exists, even if ot is not my cup of tea....


On the same page is a link to a more sophisticated experiment in colorizing the past/decolorizing the present by a Russian photographer, Sergey Larenkov.

Unlike these simple exercises in colorization which attempt to see "what the past looked like in color" by relying on naively imagined color, Larekov's experiment does not rely on imposing false colors-and it succeeds brilliantly.


I love grafiti.

It's not the graffiti, I don't like - it's the lack of permission. We have some open laneways in Melbourne for legal street art - and it's often quite good (and always changing). Colourisation is the same thing - it's the lack of permission. I've seen colourised photos for forensic purposes (law, history) and thought they were useful. So maybe that's an exception to the lack of permission.

I'm sorry, what was the question? I keep falling into the photo of Elizabeth Taylor.

Portfolio pieces for illustrators, to show off their PS skills. Great way to get noticed and get work, I think.

You'll notice how the retouchers are all attributed and linked.

I think one of the commenters above said the same—this is illustration, nothing more. People can do interesting things artistically with similar techniques of appropriation, but this ain't it.

So this work: technically strong? Some of it. Vaguely interesting if well-researched? Sure. Artistically relevant? Nope. And for me, that's the thing—none of these could ever be as artistically viable as the originals, whatever the merits of the originals may or may not be.

But I don't buy this whole 'respect for the artist', 'poor Bob Willoughby' bit, in part because these colorizations are not art, pure and simple. Spiritual ownership? Willoughby will always own the photograph 'spiritually', but it's awesome, it's out there, and as such people will do things that look like poor approximations of bad pulp novel covers. And it's really not much like the travesty of writing that happens in Hollywood—these were conceived and executed on their own, then messed with after. In hollywood the process is just screwed-up, bottom to top...

Sorry I can't buy your moral outrage. These are too boring for that... ;)

Hmmm... These colorized photos, for the most part, look pretty awful, and I've been trying to understand why. On a more or less aesthetic level they're bad, I think, because they are failed attempts at "realism."

One of the most engaging and attractive attributes of black & white is its inherent abstraction of reality. For that reason, when I shoot color, I steer clear of "natural" color because I find it boring and rather pointless. If someone were to colorize these photos in a purposefully unnatural way, to express some underlying abstraction or meaning that the colorizer sees, I'd be much more willing to give them a chance and more likely to see something of value.

What I find interesting is my different mental reaction to the B&W and colour pictures.

The B&W picture I see as an abstract object, an artefact or light and shade. The person or event is not real to me because it is not realistic.

In the colour versions it is the subject I am drawn to. The picture itself, the physical object, is just a window frame.

Artistically therefore I could argue the case for B&W, but I would prize colour for it's documentary value.

Please note, I am not saying these colourisations are accurate, although I find it ironic that a fan of B&W should get sniffy about chromatic accuracy. I am saying that colour changes the whole relationship between viewer and subject and I find that interesting in itself.

It is also probably one of the reasons why I am incapable of looking at a whole gallery of B&W images at once. In isolation I can appreciate a single picture enormously, but after a while they could as well be different views from the same place and time. There are no visual references, no semiotic clues as to their individual relevance except in the grain and tint of the film.

To me B&W is about the photographer, and colour is about the photographed. Perhaps this was something Stephen Shaw figured out? Perhaps it's why I figured out Shaw.

Still, none of this may have occurred to me without the post, so thanks for that.

(I made a version of this comment before, but possibly didn't do the CAPTCHA? Or maybe it was so foolish it was moderated away! If so, I will take the hint if it doesn't turn up this time ;)

While I agree with you, Mike, basically, there are two worthwhile notes to make I think:

First the inviolate nature of art comes and goes. In some eras written music is a guideline, in others it as a prescription to be followed precisely, for example. Photography seems to be in a malleable phase, to be sure.

Second, it's worth thinking about how would Big Jay McNeely feel about laying a wild riff of color over the picture, versus how Bob Willoughby might feel, versus how you and I feel.

I see these photos as an exercise -- an attempt to get the viewer to see the photos and the subjects in a different light (no pun intended) -- and therefore they don't bother me. I don't think it's the same as publishing a book or poster of Edward Weston's work in color or Steve McCurry's work in black and white or even showing a colorized version of a B&W movie. In fact, the colorized versions can help you appreciate the B&W even more by showing what the color adds and subtracts from the image.

"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.""

I really don't want to kick this horse any more but I do feel a rebuttal coming on.

As you rightly point out these images cover a wide period of time and color film did exist during its latter parts. But even during these periods color was not an option for many photographers due to processing costs and press constraints. I dare say that we are witnessing the effects of the practical normalization of color imaging today. We are buried in color images, not b&w. I further dare to speculate that nearly all of those images would have been shot in color if the shooters had free color in their hands.

As to the "realism" claim, although I did not make that remark it is...true. No, we may not know that "Einstein's shorts were blue" but we do know that his skin was not gray. We can debate about which version of, for example, the Japanese archers we prefer but the color version resonates as a more realistic testimony to the scene. So while color images may not be chromatically accurate black and white images, for all their lovely charms, are unarguably an abstraction.

Personally, I think these are quite well-done, although I prefer the b&w versions of several. Joseph Goebbels scowling at Eisenstaedt looks far too human in color.

And in the end, yes, they are each just jpeg files. The originals have not been vandalized.

[Hi Ken, I think you are just as strongly a partisan of color photography as I am of B&W. Maybe even a little more so. Hmm? --Mike]

It seems strange to me how so many people get so heated over this topic abut different renderings of photographs. None of them depict reality. They are all just aesthetic choices. Great suffering occurs over strongly held beliefs based only on personal preferences.

[Hi Scott, I don't think you get this at all. Ask yourself, WHOSE aesthetic choices? Maybe that will help you see what we're talking about here. You can colorize your own black-and-white photographs till the cows come home without eliciting the slightest peep from me. --Mike]

What's next? Painting a moustache over the Gioconda? Painting the statue of David? The Colosseum...?
Frankly, some people don't get it.

Well maybe you have a point when looking at it from the photographer's point of view. I suppose I would be somewhat miffed if someone else colorized my photographs and published them. Depending on how the project was described and attributed...So I guess I see some of your viewpoint!

Just throwing this out there - I think that the way one reacts to colorization depends a lot on what one expects a photograph to be. Do I think it's a literal record of immutable facts? A contemporary document fixed in technique and time? Is it a work of art, due the same respect as a Rembrandt or a Picasso? We seem to be a lot like the blind men and the elephant, each talking about the small bit we grasp, and having very strong feelings about it. What I find most interesting here is our strong reactions. What are the real reasons we get so upset? I think we're reacting to our own ideas, not the colorizations per se. And we get pretty wild!

In reply to Ken Tanaka's last post -- to expand on it a bit -- even when color existed, it might not have been possible to use it. In the Big Jay McNeely photo, what are you going to do, shoot night auditorium action photos with Kodachrome? Big Jay would have looked like Sponge Bob SquarePants. And one of the things that the colorizers often pride themselves on is not just some routine colorization job, but doing research to get the colors right. So, Einstein's shorts might well have been blue. And I know most of the signs in the Dorothea Lange photo are accurate, because I recognize them. I think a lot of these things don't just have the color slapped on; they're colorized after some research.

Some guy once made a B&W print of a bright red apple sitting in saturated green grass (I have this print hanging on my wall) and the value of the red and green were almost identical -- which shows you exactly how misleading B&W can be. With important historical photographs, carefully researched to pin down colors, it's often interesting to see how things *really* looked...for historical purposes, rather than artistic purposes. I probably ought to make a copy of that photo and colorize it, just to see what the original impact would have been like...

Just a small point. I can't speak for straight theater, but musical theater does mess with "the book" to some extend, often adding or removing bits of music for reasons of pacing and sometimes leaving out whole songs. The same thing happens regularly with the orchestral scores used in ballet. (One Nutcracker with which I'm familiar actually inserts music from an entirely different Tchaikovsky piece into the show!)

Perhaps the comparison between photography and performing arts - those things that happen live and never the same twice, such as music, dance, theater - may not be the most appropriate. In these forms, the creation of the performance is always a collaboration between the composer/writer/choreographer and the musicians/actors/dancers and they are expected to alter and add to the bare skeleton of the original creation.

Photography, like painting, is very different. Most often, the work is created by a single artist working alone, frequently at every stage from capture to print, as they say. Here, it is (usually, with some arguable exceptions) the norm that the entire work is the result of the vision and technique of one person. And here, I tend to agree that colorization and such stuff is almost completely inappropriate, and certainly so if it is done in a way that suggests that this is what the original artist might have seen if color had been available. Color was not available and he/she most certainly did not see this way.

Finally, we've seen some great examples of how photographers whose ability to see in compelling ways in black and white utterly failed to transfer to color. (Exhibit A: Ansel Adams)

G Dan Mitchell

Mike, re: Sam Shepard or David Mamet plays being produced untouched, that's because theater has been Serious Art in all caps for some time now. It's gone through the popular-trash, is-it-art-or-isn't-it, no-it-damned-sure-isn't, and yes-it-damned-sure-is phases and found its place in the pantheon of respectable arts. Being supplanted by television and movies has also helped it somewhat in that regard, I think.

I've been thinking about this issue for a few days now. And I've been wondering how this applies to music!

I quite like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, don't hold this against me!!! And one of the things that I find interesting is listening to other peoples interpretations of these songs. (Heck you could apply this to any musician.) I like how other prople interpret Bob and Leonard's songs, sometimes they are so different. Remember when Jimmy Hendrix did a version of Dylan's "All along the Watch Tower" with very different music, and now this Hendrix version is the one Dylan plays, not his original version.

Is not colouring someone elses photo something similar? Derivitive art?

One could always say that new versions of song could disrespect the intent of the original artist, but is that so?



I noticed that in almost all portrait type pictures coloring drew attention away from the face and thus made the image much weaker for me. So I absolutely don't agree that the colored ones would be better. The most obvious examples are the boy smoking in big jeans on the porch and the Einstein one, maybe due to the strong colors and large blob of blue in an otherwise rather monochromatic image.

I'm an old guy, but not so old that I didn't always have the option of shooting in color. I chose to use mostly B&W film both because it was cheaper and I could control the processing myself. When I shot B&W the medium affected the way I saw the subject and how I photographed it. Had I meant it to be "more realistic" as some defenders of colorization say (apparently meaning what you'd have seen if you were standing in the photographer's shoes), I would have used color film. But that misses the whole point of creating an image which is the photographer's or artist's reaction to what they saw. The image is a separate thing, a statement about the subject, not a simple peep hole in time & space.I have some B&W photos to which I have added color via photo oils or Photoshop but it is MY choice with MY image, a part of my expression.

Being a graduate of a fine art school I have worked in a number of mediums and learned in the process that the medium always affects the expression. Working in pastel I saw things in terms of pastel chalk. Likewise with pen and ink drawing, graphite drawing, acrylic painting, etc.

Somehow when photographers became able to photograph in color the public at large failed to grasp that this was a new medium, not simply a perfection of a previously deficient monochrome medium. Perhaps that is why many seem to feel compelled to back to old B&Ws and add color. In any case I feel colorization is misguided at best and often a desecration. I'm with you Mike. If anyone in future colorizes my B&W work, I'll haunt them.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007