Non-photographers often complain about black and white images: they’re dated, they’re just a gimmick, or they’re elitist and boring. These are personal preferences; however, we live in a color world, so you can't discount that black and white images can create a disconnect for modern viewers. To bring history alive, is colorization a solution?
I studied history in school. Being a history buff, I’ve been looking at Robert Capa’s and Frank Hurley’s black and white images for as long as I can remember. As a photographer, I learned to shoot, develop, and print using black and white film.
I’m comfortable with the black and white format. However, getting non-photographers or non-historians to take black and white images can be quite difficult. Seeing a well-colorized image can create a sense of wonder where black and white can sometimes result in an emotional misfire.
Flipping through Instagram, I came across @polar_history_in_colour, run by Ross Day. Day’s feed covers two of my biggest interests, photography and the history of polar exploration. Looking a bit deeper, I was blown away by the life-like feeling of Day’s colorization work. To borrow the cliché, his work brings history alive.
I had a chance to chat with Day about his work and what pulled him into the world of colorization.
Franklin, Scott, and a Pandemic
The day was raised close to the Scott Polar Research Institute near Cambridge. Living close to and visiting the Institute was Day’s first taste of polar history. As a student of history himself, Day was also intrigued by the Franklin mystery.
Years after his initial experiences with polar history, Day’s job was a casualty of the first UK lockdown. With free time on his hands, Day started to investigate his family tree. Related to this personal project, he had an old image of his great-great-grandfather, aged and cracked by time, circa 1914. As a treat for his grandmother, Day tried his hand at cleaning up and colorizing the image. Taking his cues from Jordan Lloyd’s example, Day quickly worked through all of his family’s vintage photographs. Hearkening back to his love for polar history, it made sense for Day to start looking at the wealth of photographs from the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration.
As Day worked through black and white images from polar expeditions, his girlfriend convinced him to start an Instagram account to share his work; success followed quickly.
Technical and Ethical Hurdles
As Day can’t readily get to a museum during the pandemic, his first task is to find a high-resolution scan shared on the internet. Given that the vast majority of images taken by the polar expeditions were shot as daguerreotypes or on now chipped and scratched glass plates, this is much harder than it sounds. As Day explained, many of the scans shared online were uploaded a decade or more ago. Consequently, these scans are lower resolution than what would be usable today.
Once he’s found a usable scan, Day takes the image into Photoshop to clean up the scratches and dusk marks. Day is very well aware of the criticism leveled against colorizers and archivists for cleaning up too much. If there is any ambiguity to a scratch or blemish, Day leaves it alone. After all, as Day puts it, a mystery mark could be a freckle or a tear in a well-worn suit or uniform, a part of history.
From here, Day turns the image into a true black and white. Many daguerreotypes or glass plates are tinted slightly blue or green. For Day, the colorization process runs smoother if he’s working with just grayscale.
For those of you interested in the technical side of the process, Day uses Photoshop and edits in RGB.
The Process: Research
With the initial stages completed, Day then begins to colorize the images. He is committed to not blindly guessing at colors. He methodically researches contemporary equipment and flags that are on display at museums around the world. So, when Day colorizes a strap on Shackleton's overalls a brown tan, it’s because he’s found examples of the Boss’s clothing to work from.
Day is so committed to his research that if he can’t find something to guide his colorization work, he’ll leave a part of the image black and white.
The Process - Enhancement
Although Day uses Photoshop for all of his color work, he will use plugins to help enhance certain parts of an image. For example, the famous photo of Tom Creen and a litter of puppies was an easy choice for colorization due to its historical popularity. Unfortunately, the image was focused on the puppies, not on Creen. In this case, Day used a facial enhancing plug-in to bring Creen into focus. Again, Day isn’t oblivious to the ethics of changing historical images and so makes it his goal to enhance, not to change.
As I’ve mentioned above, Day is a historian and is very aware of the historian’s credo not to take an active hand in shaping history. He was clear that he doesn’t want to prioritize his colorizations over the originals. Day asks that viewers look at the color and black and white images together to develop a deeper understanding of the period.
I was curious who Day’s favorite polar photographer was. Day, like me, is a fan of Hurley (link to my other article) and Herbert Ponting. Although Day will often pass on editing photos that are just ice or glaciers, as there isn’t much color to be added, his favorite image is Hurley’s Endurance Trapped in Ice. For Day, seeing the ship in black and white makes the ship and her crew seem mythical. Seeing the image in color makes their trials and tribulations more relatable. For me, seeing the Endurance trapped in the bleak whiteness of the ice under those beautiful spots of the open blue sky makes the expedition's plight more visceral.
What Now For Day?
The day is currently working through the best images he can pull together from Andrée's Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897 and Robert Peary’s various expeditions towards the North Pole. Of note, Day just colorized a beautiful set of images of Inuit peoples from Peary’s expeditions. Of course, sharing these images isn’t a comment on Peary’s treatment of the Inuit, but as part of the record of such treatment.
Regardless of Peary's reputation, the colorized versions of these photos do bring Inuit experiences to a new and modern audience.
All images are colorized by Ross Day. All original images are in the public domain.
"Day asks that viewers look at the color and black and white images together to develop a deeper understanding of the period."
Why weren't the black and white images posted alongside the color ones then? It would have been nice (as a viewer/reader).
Good question. In retrospect, I wanted to focus on the colorization. I included some comparisons / examples, but I suppose I could have included more.
I get it. I just would have personally liked to see them side by side, but I mentioned it because of that quote.
For anyone interested in this stuff, check out this.
Are we going to talk about the Klingon in the 2nd photo or nah?
I believe we're talking about Frank Wild, on the far left? Quite the resume.
I can see the similarity you're referring to in respect of TOS (?).
Overzealous topaz gigapixel facial enhancement maybe? Maybe Topaz is responsible for the entire Klingon race in the far future.
This particular black and white is in ROUGH shape. From 1909. Wild also has quite the widow's peak naturally. There is also a massive scratch above Wild's right eye, which Day decided not to remove as part of the record.
I think we're also dealing with fantastic sunburns.
While some of these colorings (excuse me, "colorizations") are clearly better than others, I feel like they add a sense of reality, i.e. these were real people just like us. That adds value.
On the other hand, historians want accuracy, and here that's being sacrificed to some extent.
Agreed - Sense of reality for long gone events versus strict adherence to accuracy. Do you think there is a way to blend those?
The process could become so good that we don't recognize it in use, but that would be less honest, not more. What colors were those thick wool sweaters and jackets, in reality - what dies were in use, who made them? Did their hair or skin tones show evidence of vitamin deficiencies or lead poisoning? People will "colorize" them in ways that romanticize what might have been a gritty reality. They'll put a beautiful iceberg in the background. Then they'll get to work "fixing" the people who had their eyes closed, or moved during the exposure.
I find your comment that a better process might be less honest VERY interesting and appealing.
Also interesting to talk about dyes. Day talked to me about the research he did, actually going to museums to see sweaters etc. I've been to the museum in South Georgia and seen some of Shackleton's clothing. So I could extrapolate from there. Again, just best guesses. There has been a lot of research into dyes for say, ancient Nile civilizations, so that we can at least make a guess at King Tut's bib colours.
But, you'd be right to point out. Those are just guesses.
I read a great book about the Shackleton expedition so I know about Frank Hurley. Shooting glass plates, he made an absolutely heroic effort. I sort of feel like those photos shouldn't be touched; not enhanced in any way. That photographic technology is so much a part of the story, and color doesn't really add much. But the future will decide, as always. There's no real right or wrong, and the work in this article is very good. I think Hurley would probably be thrilled.
With regard to ancient civilizations like Egypt, we're talking about color that WAS part of the original work but has been lost. I'm all for trying to restore it and bring back a vibrant culture of the past.
Hurley is one of my favourites. I agree, I think he'd be thrilled. Especially considering he manipulated photos himself so often (even trying paget colour processing). A printing expert. I think my fav is the Endurance at night.
I've written a few articles on Hurley, or swirling around Hurley, if you don't mind the shameless plug:
What book? I'm always looking to learn!!
"The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition"
by Caroline Alexander
Just read your previous piece on Hurley. Terrific! Living in Minnesota I know how tough it can be to deal with even a small problem out in extreme cold. Frank Hurley was no ordinary man.
Thanks - Will go look for it. Appreciate that.
We were in Churchill a few years ago to see the bears. My shutter froze, trying to move lenses to my back up body was impossible. I had to give up. I can't imagine what Hurley had to do regularly. Legend.