Sunday, 18 August 2013

I've just discovered the wonders of colorised photographs - if you haven't, you're in for a treat!

The handsome young chap above looks like a floppy-haired English actor appearing in some moody socialistic tale of oppression and suffering at the National. In fact, he's Lewis Powell, one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and this photograph was taken almost 150 years ago - it's just had some colour added to it.

I knew I knew this elderly gent from somewhere - distinguished author or mystic or playwright, taken in the late 1960s, I presumed.

 Of course, it's Charles Darwin. 

I also vaguely recognised this chap - a better-looking and less follically-challenged version of Wayne Rooney - but, again, the colour foxed me:

Butch Cassidy.

I love black and white historical photographs - the lack of colour seems to add weight, meaning, reverence and poignancy to the events and people featured in them. But adding colour to those pictures lends them an extraordinary immediacy, a presence, that, while it tends to remove some of the magic, also, to wheel out a dreadful old cliché, brings history alive - and not always in a nice way:

This was taken at the precise, chilling moment when Goebbels learned that the photographer - Albert Eisenstaedt - was Jewish.

Colorisation seems to be all the rage at the moment - there are any number of sites featuring doctored photographs (many, for some reason, appear to be Scandinavian). The most impressive I came across on a quick trawl this afternoon was Colorized History (here) - but there are many other excellent ones, links to which can be found at Twisted Sifter (here).

Here are some other examples, the first of which, taken in 1939, is so marvellous, I want a large, framed copy on my wall:

Japanese Archers, c.1860
Hindenburg Disaster, 6th May 1937
I was initially worried by the obvious drawback that these photographs no longer represent reality, but are based on guesswork - but, of course, when it comes to photos, there's no such thing as objective reality. What we end up seeing depends on the camera settings choosen by the photographer, the choices he or she makes during the developing and printing process, and the inherent limitations of the medium on which we're viewing the photo. (Whenever I've searched online for reproductions of paintings to include on this blog, I've been struck by the huge variations between the various versions on offer  - none of which quite match the painting one saw in the gallery. The same is true of reproductions in books.)

I'll end with this heart-breaking photograph from the Blitz of a little boy clutching what one assumes was his sole remaining possession.


  1. I'll keep my thoughts about Lewis to myself...don't want to start any trouble :).

    One thing about the colorized photos on the first link. There's a picture that's been colored to show dead Yankees at Gettysburg...they never took pictures of dead Union soldiers.

    Those were ours.

    The storefront is my favorite...other than...

  2. Poster boy, huh?

    I stayed away from anything to do with American soldiers of that era - because I knew I or the colourists would have got it wrong! Good call on my part.

    I tried to use the storefront picture as the illustration for my Fulminators YouTube channel, but they require too many damned pixels.

    1. There was a history professor at Millsaps who had no compunction about keeping a picture of John Brown on her door...why should I be coy?

      Well, I reckon there is the issue of manners.