Of late there has been a huge upswing in the trend towards ‘colourising’ old monochrome photos. Adding colour to monochrome isn’t new, of course – there was a whole industry devoted to ‘hand tinting’ back in the day. It was done to give people the feel of being there. Special oil paints were manufactured for this purpose. They also came in suitable grey tones to touch up monochrome prints. These days Photoshop does the job, and there’s a growing range of ‘AI’ software that automates the colourising process. Sort of.
The problem, of course, is that we don’t know the precise colours of the day. We have a good idea, obviously – I mean, grass is usually likely to be green. But the literal shades aren’t known. So a colourised photo is not literally what the scene of the day showed. Yet it is still worth doing, I think. To me, a colourised photo has an emotional value. Nobody expects it to be literally correct. Instead, it’s done – as hand-tinting was back in the day – to create a feeling, to allow us to better identify emotionally with the subject, getting a better sense of what it would have been like in the moment. We know the colours aren’t literally those of the scene, but the feeling they evoke is still valid, and this is meaningful to us.
In short – and providing we understand that it’s not a literal truth, colourising becomes a useful way to help us emotionally engage with the past, adding a dimension to the way we see history. After all, back in the day people didn’t see things in grainy black-and-white, did they? In this sense, colourising is the same as an artist producing a painting. By nature, the artist cannot literally reproduce the scene, nor is that the intention: they try, instead, to create a mood through use of colour, composition and style. The epitome of this approach, for me, remains the impressionists: Monet, particularly, captured ‘light’ via the interplay of colour to create emotions in his viewers. To do this he represented scenes as daubed paint, intentionally colour-shifted and lacking close detail. Was he a rubbish artist because he didn’t literally paint what he saw in accurate detail? Of course not.
In point of fact, this issue of the colour not being objectively true applies to any colour photograph, both from the days of film-and-print and digitally. The earliest colour photography used the Autochrome process developed in 1904-07 by the Lumiere brothers, which was based on potato starch. In 1908 the editor of Photography magazine, R. Child Bayley, declared that these images could capture the ‘colours of Nature’ in ‘a most startlingly truthful way’. Actually, they couldn’t. Autochromes, by nature, ‘blued’ the colours: a yellow filter helped distort them back the other way, but they still weren’t objectively accurate.
On my own experience, you can’t match what the human eye sees even with today’s technology – and the art of photography, in any case, is to add emotional meaning by controlling how the light influences the colour of a scene, even adding filters to ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ the palette. That’s quite apart from the issue of colour-matching, which is challenging to achieve either in physical printing or on a monitor. In short, the colour in colour photographs isn’t objectively correct, either. For instance, here’s a photo I took of Napier’s Pacific Beach with my Canon 70D DSLR using a polarising filter at a very specific light angle. It’s untouched, aside from my watermark, yet the colours are far more saturated and tilted towards the red than those I saw with my own eyes. Chances are also high that the way your monitor represents them differs from the way mine does. In point of fact, I was deliberately trying to get a warm saturation via light angle and polarising, to capture the mood of the later afternoon sun on the beach I used to kick around on as a kid.
I mention all this at some length because I made the point on a social media site, briefly, about colourisation having similar function to that of an artist. For this I was instantly abused by an enthusiast who informed me how ‘dangerous’ my views were. To him, old paintings were objective truth, whereas I was apparently advocating a fantasy addition to old photographs, which was wrong and proved how ignorant and (wait for it) ‘dangerous’ I was. I didn’t bother engaging. One cannot explain concepts to people who flat refuse to accept the basic principles.
What do you think about the art of colourising photographs?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022