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A Group of Historians Is Arguing to End the Coloring and Modernization of Old Historic Photos

As per Wired, a number of historians are making calls to stop the colorization and modernization of images from decades past. Updating photos to resemble modern eras “obscures” history, they argue.

An increasingly popular service over recent years, advances in technology have allowed for the colorizing of old photos and video footage, giving a fresh insight into scenes from history. However, not everyone is a fan of the process, with some historians publicly declaring they feel the negatives outweigh the positives.

Wired is reporting that Luke McKernan, the lead curator of news and moving images at the British Library, said:

It is a nonsense. Colorization does not bring us closer to the past; it increases the gap between now and then. It does not enable immediacy; it creates difference.

The historians argue that implementing extra frames or color takes away from what the original footage is and should remain.

Associate Professor at University College Dublin’s School of Art History and Cultural Policy Emily Mark-Fitzgerald said:

The problem with colorization is it leads people to just think about photographs as a kind of uncomplicated window onto the past, and that’s not what photographs are.

YouTubers who specialize in upscaling old footage have defended their work, claiming it makes important historical footage easier for new generations to digest. There’s also an argument for the restoring of footage attracting the attention of people who wouldn’t otherwise have been interested.

The debate continues!

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David Pavlich's picture

As long as the originals aren't being compromised, why should anyone care?

I wonder if any of these historians are condoning the removal of statues that reflect history? Just asking.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

I agree with you on preserving the originals, but let's please keep removal of statues out of this -- that can easily degenerate into a totally off-topic flamewar.

Mark Alameel's picture

While I think the statue quip was political, it actually presents a weird correlation.

Many believe that the grey marble Roman statues were originally painted in vibrant colors. Doe we restore then to be historically correct is the lost of the original colors part of the overall history.

To be even further out. Many also believe that dinosaurs were also very colorful.

Its amazing how current perceptions are tied to what we originally know but as we discover and learn more, many don't want to expand their knowledge because it slightly challenges their reality.

David Pavlich's picture

" History itself is not lost when a statue is removed." Correct. And history isn't changed with the removal of a statue.

David Pavlich's picture

How does it change anything? Are people's lives better because a statue is removed? Do people get better jobs, better healthcare, better freedoms? We can choose to be offended or we can choose not to allow a piece of granite run our lives. The offense industry is a classic 'tail wag the dog' scenario. This is one part of what will eventually run Western Civilization into the trash heap of history....whatever 'history' becomes. Attempting to hide or alter history has no upside.

David Pavlich's picture

Let me use the old cliche, we will have to agree to disagree. Statue/monument removal, regardless of what that monument stood for, is one symptom in a world full of symptoms. I'll leave it at that since there is no way that you see things as I see them.

Remember, people have been 'chilling' for a LONG time. I'm not going to 'chill'. Others have sat back and chilled. History tells us that very bad things happened when people 'chilled'.

And with that, I'm done with this discussion.

Scott Wardwell's picture

You say that history is not lost when a statute is removed and that they are a product of the the era. I would argue that when you thwart the will of the people who erected them by tearing down their symbols, what is lost is the context of that history. There is nothing tangible for everyday people to remind them of their journey.
To tear down monuments has become a blood sport within a narrow subset of people who are merely leveraging this issue against a wider political agenda. Actually what we are witnessing is an irrational and widely inaccurate representation and purge of our history that other historians and academics have played along with and have abrogated their responsibilty for by not speaking out, all for the sake of tenure. And then blame us dumb good-ole boys for not having all the right credentials. It is highly suspect that history can be corrupted with the ease of an Wikipedia edit.
My father was a Maine Yankee and my mother's side came from Missouri. I have been to Mt. Rushmore, Stone Mountain and most of the monuments in D.C.. We are interconnected and our history has been paid for with our dearest blood already. What do these these people expect of us - another Rwanda?

Scott Wardwell's picture

What I object to is the arrogance that are somehow the so-called educated elite in history have lent their expertise to propaganda such "Critical Race Theory", "The 1619 Project" and "The Lincoln Project". I even had a high school teacher in 1971 try to indoc us into Chinese Communism. I was given my copy of Mao's Little Red Book. In hindsight, that was while his atrocities were going-on but my teacher never brought those factoids up. He almost had us but higher powers put a stop to that.
You can't defend what I have accused your profession of; so you take the tack I see over and over on these forums of refusing to do so. And i was being overly broad in my examples hoping someone would be smart enough to recognize what I was referring to. But apparently I over-estimated your ability to think outside the box and recognize the wholesale assault on our history starting with denigrating our customs like the National Anthem, to Civil War statues, to monuments in DC, to freedom of speech and worship. If you don't think it is beyond the pale to tell Southerners they can't venerate Lee or Jackson in their own way, then God help any less advanced culture we meet in the future. Because you will have put yourself in the mold of other infamous book burners- The Taliban, The Chinese Communist Party and #1 on everybody's list: The NAZI's.
If you had any intellectual honesty you would have recgonized the two major points I was making in the beginning but you got your briefs in a wad and deemed them inflammatory and you did what I said you would- blame me and dismiss my concerns; because from your perspective ; I am not a subject-matter expert.

David Pavlich's picture

"...please apologize for your wide-stroke inflammatory statement on my profession." Sorry, I know I said that I was done, but now it becomes crystal clear; you're offended! "Peace in our time" (I'm not talking about Disraeli). And then what happened? Chilling is nice after a hard day's work, but.....

I'm neither a crusader nor a fool. I happen to disagree with you so I'm wrong and you're right. Funny thing, I didn't disparage you, but you, the person that has the paperwork hanging on your office wall, decided it was time to up the anty. Nice.

David Pavlich's picture

How many prints have you sold this year? I'm down a bit due to the virus at 68 prints sold. Last year, 114. I guess the great unwashed like my work. Heck, I just sold 3 of my over the top tone mapped prints. Imagine that?! And the tree shots? I've sold 8 of those so far.

I learned a long time ago that there will be people that don't like my work and that's fine. It's all subjective. You need to find something else that might offend me besides your pathetic attempt at making me ashamed of my work. I love my stuff.

Since you've decided to call people names, I'll change your name from Paul to 'Pointy Headed Academic'.

David Pavlich's picture

I'd like to see your work. You don't have anything here, so I'm guessing you don't like others to see your work. Or maybe we here aren't worthy of viewing your stuff. But opinion guided by experience tells me you have thin skin and might be offended by a negative critique. No way to tell since you talk a lot but don't show any reason why you belong to this site.

And the wine bottles? Sold several prints of that one as well. Not that you give a rat's behind, but that's 7 exposures done at different shutter speeds, synced in LR then given the finishing touches in Photomatix Pro. And since you don't like it, I'll take that as a major accomplishment.

You need to follow your own prescription and chill a bit.

David Pavlich's picture

You could take a picture of some of your feces and sell it. Of course, it would be pure substance, no texture. Kinda' like your replies. You're a pathetic little man that resorts to expletive laced rants. No more time wasted here.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Colourising old photos and films perhaps removes is from the original historical artefact of that black and white photograph, but I think it can bring us closer to the actual history of life then.
It shows us life in colour.
All the black and white photographs from the past make us perceive the past as some black and white, sepia period instead of a world full of colour just like the modern time.

So in my opinion we should separate the historical artefacts from the picture of the past that they give us.
The artefacts are sepia, or black and white.
The window onto our past that they give, has extra value to us if we can also see it with the original colour.

Stefan Gonzalevski's picture

I agree. And I'd add that the reality was not in black and white. Colors exist without the filter of photography. And, who knows if the photographers of the past wouldn't have used color film if they had the choice ? I don't recall painters who used only grey tones.

Of course, it's not question to colorize a photo of, say, Man Ray. But I remember the impact that had the colorization of this young Polish girl murdered in Auschwitz, by Marina Amaral. It seems we need to show how recent History is close to us. And color is a very efficient way to achieve this.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

My parents were really late at switching to color tv, but thanks to my older brother's wealthy friend who brought an early ping pong console to our place, we were able to see the game a few minutes before the old b&w set started smelling hot and stopped working for ever. Colors were such a weird thing on the new set, it took me a few days to stop thinking about it.
There are really two effect that affected me in the Japanese clip. The first one is how realistic people look compared to the jerky wrong speed and missing frames. The second one is how color makes the scene look even older than viewed in black and white. I think the proper speed and colorization reveal how different things are today. Black and white in motion hides a lot despite showing the same exact things

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I do like the frames fill that allow almost normal movements. When I was a kid, there was none of that on older films which was then normal, but there is no doubt in my mind that the cameramen of the time would have loved to be able to play their work the way we can now play it. Color wise, the process employed here gives realistic soft colors rendering that I find acceptable. Acceptable by all or not, the process and duplication allows for the films to be exposed to the public again and increase the chances for these time frames to survive.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

sound not real this a mess!

Alex Ragen's picture

As everyone knows, color was invented in the late 1930s and color film was invented about 2 hours after that.

Fritz Gessler's picture

certainly a lot of pros&cons on that issue ... but, just to state: the JAPANESE vintage photos of that era (meiji, after the forced opening of japan) were all HANDCOLORED then :)) there existed even painter/printer-workshops to paint artfully the sepia/black&white originals in order to sell them as exotic souvenirs :)
so, digitally coloring in that case would not alter the perception of the image as a piece of art or documents (geisha/samurai images were staged, too - by actors, btw:)

Dave F's picture

Calvin: Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have color film back then?

Dad: Sure they did, in fact, those old photographs ARE in color. It’s just that the WORLD was in black and white then.

Calvin: Really?

Dad: Yep. The world didn’t turn to color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.

Calvin: That’s really weird.

Dad: Well, truth is stranger than fiction.

Calvin: But then why are old PAINTINGS in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn’t artists have painted it that way?

Dad: Not necessarily, a lot of great artists were insane.

Calvin: But… but how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn’t their paints have been shades of gray back then?

Dad: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else did in the ’30s.

Calvin: So why didn’t black and white photos turn color too?

Dad: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?

Calvin: The world is a complicated place, Hobbes.

Hobbes: Whenever it seems that way, I take a nap in a tree and wait for dinner.


David Pavlich's picture

Arguably, the best comic ever penned. Brilliant writing!

Erpillar Bendy's picture

Colorization is perfectly fine if identified as such.