60 Seconds Exploring Design & Technology since 1988

60-Seconds 302: Should we colorize history?


Our good friend Chuck Green recently made a post to Facebook about the digital colorization of historical photographs. His complaint was followed by a ponderous tome of learned comments from both sides of the isle. An alarm went off in my head. I’m thinking; hey, everyone already knows about that — but then, do they? So I went digging for all the “Digital Ethics” information that I’ve written about since the late 1980s and discovered — OMG: over a decade has gone by! These “newbies” could very well not be informed about Digital Ethics.

I became aware of and cautious of digital ethics very early in my computing life. In 1987 I was an editor and publisher for the Computer Users for Social Responsibility (CUSR) and a contributing news editor for the Mug News Service (MNS). We were building the first forums for America Online, and were acutely aware of the need and importance of security and ethics in the new online world. (Nobody used the term “digital” in those days!) As part of the MNS we distributed news or articles to user groups around the country. The first digital ethics article we published was in 1990 — an article called “Personal Computer Software and Ethics” by James Redelfs, then director of the Omaha computer group.

With the advent of Photoshop, and the high-end photo retouching softwares, a very lot of serious retouching could be done cleanly and invisible to all but a trained professional. So my 60-Second Window edition #168 ran an article that covered the obligations of digital artists. I have updated that and uploaded it to the site — providing links below.

Fast forward to 2013

So it’s been some years since I authored my article — and now well-known author and designer, Chuck Green posts to his Facebook page:

Now even the prestigious Smithsonian Institute seems to be condoning the digital colorization of historical photographs. As I have said before, I believe a photograph is a creative work that should be protected from this type of defacement — ethically, if not legally. I can’t image anyone having the temerity to colorize Ansel Adams’ The Tetons — Snake River. Or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. And I doubt most would look favorably on a budding writer who decided to add a chapter or two to Joyce’s Ulysses and republish it.

Is this any different?

The thread addresses a Civil War photograph being colorized for a Smithsonian article

“Photo Interactive: The Civil War, Now in Living Color”

Martin Bounds writes :

Yes it is. You have to ask yourself if Matthew Brady had been able to take color photographs in the Civil War would he have? Of course he would. Photos like Ansel Adams’ Tetons and Full Moon Overe Half Dome were purposely taken in B&W. They are studies in contrast and part of their allure are the clean, well-defined lines in the photos.He was not trying to bring out colors but shapes As far as Picasso, I’m pretty sure he used every color he wanted to painting Guernica. To that point, art archivists restore old paintings all the time in order to bring them back to their original color pallete.
I’ve seen these colorized civil war era photos referenced in the article. They are a far step ahead of the kind of block color typical of the first 30’s and 40’s film conversions that appeared about 20 years ago. To my eye they get the color and lighting almost perfectly. There is a further benefit to seeing this done in that it helps the viewer to better see these historic figures as people they might recognize today it helps to deromantisize our view of the past. I think they are fantastic and I think Matthew Brady rather than being enraged at the bastardization of his work would be enormously grateful that viewers are able to see more exactly what he saw 150 years ago.

Chuck Green replies:

Martin, unless you talked to Matthew Brady (which would be a whole different conversation), you simply don’t know if he would have used color.
In the “
skeptics” section of an article on “color photography,” a Wikipedia author points out that Harold Baquet, a photographer known best for documenting New Orleans civil rights — was not keen on color. He preferred, to take pictures mainly using black-and-white film. When asked about his reasoning for this preference during an interview, he replied ‘The less is more thing. Sometimes the color distracts from the essential subject.

See this page in Wikipedia with huge enlargements of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”

Someoneed mentions Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother.” Her photographs, which are typically characterized as documentary in nature, were shot (in large part) for a government agency, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) — yet she used black and white. And, I believe, “Migrant Mother” was photographed in 1936 a year after Eastman Kodak introduced Kodachrome.
Click on the above picture for a more detailed comparison of the retouched photo.

Von Glitschka says :

I’ve seen it done really well, and not so well. These fall into the latter. #cheesy

John McWade says:

I like the colorizing. I agree with Martin and Silvia and Von. No, this person didn’t do a great job, but hey. This is photojournalism, right? Nothing precious about it. If color were as easy then as it is today, money says these pix would have been shot in color. And NOT POSED, which is merely a necessity of slow shutter speeds. How many black & white portraits were hand-colored BACK THEN? It was a whole profession. People choose color. It’s what life looks like. Virtually all photography today is in color; only “art” is deliberately shot black & white. Ansel Adams is a special case; coloring his pix would remove the drama and make them ordinary. Colorizing Civil War pix makes the past real. As for the migrant woman, early color photography was a pain in the darkroom and on the press; black & white was for decades more convenient for documentary, not to mention cheaper.

And besides all that, the colorized version does not destroy the black & white original, so the purists can stay happy.

A number of others chime in, some agreeing and some not. The discussion expanded to a long, tedious record of various people’s opinions and thoughts on the subject — just as any Facebook discussion goes! Yet, the mood of the discussion seemed to draw a hard line between “news” or actuality photography as opposed to pure artistic photography. I believe colorization is, in fact, justified at times. However the legal rules of intelectual property should alwasy be kept in mind and followed. At any rate, there’s a lot more to this issue than can be discussed in this article — or a Facebook post for that matter.

The moral of this story is to give some thought to the ethics and issues surrounding the modification of any image make by someone else. If it’s your job, and the boss says “… here , colorize this image for the web site by tomorrow…” ask about permissions and consider the reason for colorizing. Do it properly, and do it well.

I wish I could give you a link directly to the actual discussion on Facebook, but Facebook doesn’t want me to do that. So, I can only direct you to the links below.

Chuck Green posted this on October 7. Sorry we cannot link directly to it, so you’ll just have to scroll and scroll until you get down to Oct. 7 … look for the thumbnail

And, thanks for reading

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60 Seconds Exploring Design & Technology since 1988
Fred Showker explores design, graphics, computing, social media, marketing, and the online world with an eye to entertaining, amazing information that will possibly make you think!

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