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.