Can Colorized Photos Help People Better Understand the Past?

My colorization of Thomas Easterly’s photograph of Bob Wilkinson, a prominent barber and member of St. Louis’s free Black community before the Civil War. The original photo is courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

I have been interested in the concept of colorized historical photos for several years. This interest was initially sparked by artist Marina Amaral’s wonderful colorizations that she frequently shared on Twitter. I found myself drawn to the artistry of her use of colors to breathe a new life into old photos and often found myself pausing on my timeline to admire her work. She eventually published many of her colorizations in a book, The Color of Time, that now sits on my coffee table at home. I have also drawn much inspiration from museum historian Mark Loerher’s wonderful colorizations of St. Louis on his Instagram page, Arch City History. I have dabbled with photography for many years and have been drawn to 19th century history partly because so much of it has been documented through photographs.

A few months ago I decided that I wanted to get in on the fun. I was anxious to blend my passions for history and photography to see what I could produce with a new hobby. I downloaded GIMP, a free open-source photo editing software, and began watching video tutorials on how the use the software. I’ve colorized around 15 photos since December and have also been teaching myself how to restore badly damaged photos. Learning these new skills has been a lot of fun and has helped me get through a very cold winter. I’ve also created my own Instagram page, History Beyond Black and White, to showcase my own colorization projects.

It is safe to say, however, that I have been ambivalent about joining the colorization world partly because the historian in me recognizes several genuine criticisms to be made about their usefulness as historical documents. For one, colorizations are difficult to get right from an aesthetic viewpoint and I have seen many poor examples online, or at least examples that do not line up with my own imagination. One might also think about Ted Turner’s colorizations of classic movies, which are hard to watch and don’t hit the right way emotionally. There is also a risk of overly romanticizing colorized photos–which are ultimately interpretations of historical photos–at the expense of appreciating the artistry and historical value of original black and white photos.

A few historian colleagues have expressed skepticism about colorizations since I’ve started this new hobby. In what follows below I will try to outline my own views as to whether colorized photos can help people better understand the past.

How do you know what colors to use for colorizations? The answer, simply put, is that most of the time I don’t know what colors to use because there’s no documentation to confirm such details. The above colorization of Bob Wilkinson serves as a useful example. The colors of his suit jacket, vest, pocket watch, and skin tone are entirely my interpretation of what I envision Wilkinson’s appearance might have been on the day he had this photograph taken. Someone else could make his vest gold and his suit jacket black. Someone else could go with purple and green. The only thing that can be confirmed factually is the gold casing around the image.

In situations like the above image, it is important to stress that most colorizations are ultimately subjective, interpretive, and a form of art. The above work is not a scientific recreation of Wilkinson’s exact appearance with regards to colors, which is impossible to determine given the lack of documentation. It is merely an attempt to give an impression of what colors may have existed in this very specific moment in time. In this sense I would have a hard time saying that colorizations are a form of history. But I do think colorizations allow for us to think about history in new ways, however you may want to define that term. Perhaps most importantly, colorizations allow people to creatively use their imagination to envision how dynamic the past would have appeared at a given time.

To be sure, there are times when specific colors can be confirmed. For example, a Civil War soldier’s military records would have included a description of height, weight, hair color, and skin color, all of which could allow the artist a more approximate view of how a person would have appeared (although the number of skin tones within the terms “black,” “brown,” “white,” and other racial definers is infinite, making the choice of skin tone perhaps the most difficult part of colorizing historic photos). At other times the artist can rely on diaries, newspaper articles, obituaries, or other primary source documents to help confirm colors.

A good example is a somewhat famous picture of an unidentified United States Colored Troops soldier who was stationed at Benton Barracks in St. Louis for part of the Civil War. Enoch Long, an area photographer who took many pictures at Benton Barracks during the war, commissioned the painting of several colorful backdrops that were used to provide an extra visual appeal to his photographs. Thankfully, we have knowledge of the colors contained in the backdrop Long used in the below photo. Combined with my knowledge of Civil War uniforms, I was able to create a colorization that is pretty close to the actual colors that may have been used in the original photograph, I think.

My colorization of an unidentified USCT soldier stationed at Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. Original photo is courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Copy of Enoch Long’s backdrop used in many photos he took at Benton Barracks during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Hoffman, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Colorized photos are similar to cover songs. As a musician, I sometimes enjoy hearing cover songs and have played in several cover bands over the years. Some artists attempt to use cover songs to recreate original songs in their exact form, but in reality a wide canvas exists for musicians to create new meanings to original songs through different instrumentation, time signatures, key changes, tones, and dynamics. Sometimes covers can be just as inspiring as originals. John Mayer’s cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” on acoustic guitar is a beautiful remake of a classic that pushes the song into a new dimension not previously considered. More recently, the artist Roosevelt’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” uses synthesizers, electronic beats, and a key change from the original to create a catchy remake of a classic song. I can’t stop listening to it.

Cover songs, remixes, and mash-ups are an artistic form of expression that can be imaginative and inspiring. They can challenge people to think of original songs in new ways. I think the same kind of thinking towards colorized photos is helpful.

Black and white photos have their own inaccuracies. Black and white photos are accurate representations of the past in that they capture a moment in time and depict important qualities that help people understand how things appeared during that moment. These photos can accurately depict shape such as a person’s face, a billboard sign, a farm animal or an automobile. They can capture people, places, and objects in their materiality. The images captured by those cameras reflect the capabilities of the machine technology within the camera at the time the photo was produced. Black and white photographs therefore offer a representation of the past that can be relied upon as being accurate. At the same time, all would acknowledge that these photos are an accurate representation of the past only to a certain extent given the wide range of colors that were not captured by these cameras.

Critics of colorizations are quick to point out the subjective nature of coloring an image with colors that may not have been in the original image, which is a fair point. But it’s worth remembering that the world has never just been black and white. While colorizations are works of art that can rarely be elevated to the level of historical scholarship, colorized photos do hold the potential to convey a more accurate historical reality by depicting the dynamic color palettes of people, places, and objects from the past. They also hold the potential of exposing fine details not normally seen in a black and white photo. In other words, we may consider the idea of a black and white photo and its colorized counterpart as being two different interpretations of a moment in time, acknowledging that both versions have their own unique shortcomings.

Colorized photos can help students better connect with the past. I read an article several years ago–the author escapes me now–who argued that it was important for students to see Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in color. The author warned that the black and white tones of many photos from this time run the risk of acting as a veil. She argued that it was important to stress to students that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is recent history that remains a lived memory for many people still living today. By seeing people from this time in color, it helped humanize their stories and reinforced the idea that these were real people with meaningful experiences worth studying. These arguments were fascinating to me, and it would be an interesting experiment to see how children react to colorized images compared to their black and white counterparts.

It’s not that black and white photos aren’t important. They very much are. But the experience of seeing history in color can be powerful, meaningful, and inspiring. In my short time colorizing historic photos I’ve already seen and interacted with people who were moved by the art I was able to create. That alone inspires me to keep learning new techniques and to hopefully be in a position to help people who’d want to have their own family photos colorized someday. While colorizations are most certainly an art, I do consider them to be a tool I can use as a public historian to help people connect with the past.

Cheers