Is colorizing photographs a good idea?


By clicking on this link you can see gifs of iconic black and white photographs be colorized before your very eyes. I must admit that they are well done but is this a good idea?

This business of colorizing can raise strong emotions within the arts community. The colorizing of films at one time was hotly debated, with critics of the process saying that it was destroying the integrity of the work. Film makers during the time that color technology was not available worked within that limitation and used shadow and shade to get certain effects that risked being negated by being colorized. Rashomon is a great example of the use of shadows that I think would be destroyed by colorizing.

Clearly film studios think that people are more likely to see films if they are in color. Some directors in the era after color became routine deliberately chose to make films in black and white for artistic reasons. Mel Brooks says that when he told Columbia studio executives that he wanted to make Young Frankenstein (1974) in black and white, they were so adamantly opposed that he had to switch to 20th-Century Fox. Watching films in black and white does not bother me in the least, but I know people for whom it does.

As an aside, I wonder what this will do to Calvin’s perception of when color entered the world. You have to admire Calvin’s father for his logical skills in explaining it.

Calvin Hobbes color

Comments

  1. scottbelyea says

    Disagree that those photos are well done; most of the people look like they’ve been embalmed.

    If you want a B&W movie in colour, remake it. With few exceptions, colourization is using technology just because you can. Try to imagine a colourized Seventh Seal.

    But I wouldn’t want you to think I feel strongly about it or anything …

  2. Carl says

    Film is a passion of mine, and I am unequivocally opposed to the colorization of black-and-white movies. Even if it’s true that filmmakers of the black-and-white era would have chosen to film in color if they could (and that’s undoubtedly true for many films), as you say, the way the worked within their technological limitations is an indelible part of the artistic expression.

    That said, I think there can be value in colorizing old photos, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes the purpose of a photo is simply to document the world, and black-and-white film can hinder its ability to do so. Colorizing a photo can give modern viewers a better idea of what it was really like to be alive when the photo was taken.

    Of course, many photos represent artistic statements by the photographer, and I think the same argument against coloring movies applies.

    Also, Calvin and Hobbes is an incredible comic and that particular strip is one of the very best. It’s a very good showcase of the father’s personality.

  3. JPS says

    Back in the mid ’60s I had a membership card for the SPBWP — the Society for the Preservation of Black and White Photography. It wasn’t real, but something promoted by a photography magazine columnist.
    Unfortunately, someone stole my wallet and the card with it.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    I don’t see any point in colorizing still photos. You are adding false data to what is ostensibly a realistic document of the past. For movies, some would surely have been made in color if it had been available. Miracle on 34th Street, for example. I have no philosophical objection to colorizing it, but I would still want to see it as close as possible to how first-run audiences saw it. But if you tried to colorize The Maltese Falcon I’d sic the villagers with the torches on you.

  5. Daniel Schealler says

    It might be really crass of me – or again, it might be a sign that I took Roland Barthes a bit too seriously – but I don’t see the problem.

    Colorizing a movie takes one work of art, then does more art to it, creating a new work of art.

    So there’s more art than there was before.

    Of course, any individual example might be crappy because the sample was poorly chosen or because the person doing the colorizing didn’t really know what they were doing.

    But that’s an argument about specific examples of colorization. It’s not an argument against colorization in principle.

  6. Chris Whitehouse says

    Coloring old photographs is a hobby of mine. I mostly work on family photos, but also on historic travel photos. But that’s the thing. I only color photos that would have certainly been taken in color if the photographer had had the technology available at the time.
    I do not color artistic black and white photos where the photographer chose to use black and white. For instance, coloring an Ansel Adams would be an obvious desecration.

    Here’s one that I did of my Grandmother that everybody in the family absolutely loves.
    http://i.imgur.com/tEegY77.jpg

    And here’s an historic 3D photo of Hong Kong that I first spent a long time restoring before coloring. I think it is terrific that people get the opportunity to see these places as they actually appeared.
    http://i.imgur.com/KSNkR2A.jpg

  7. John Morales says

    Back in the days before the internet, I was always amused when people complained about movies on TV which were colorised; it was very easy for anyone who wanted monochrome to turn the colour off.

    The featured image is a Portable Network Graphics image which can also be easily de-colorised.

  8. says

    Colouring photos and movies is akin to editing racist words and profanities from books. It’s rewriting history, and may give young people the wrong impression of how things were at the time. I’ve had students ask me why nobody uses their cell phones in pre-1990 movies, or they don’t believe me when I say few people had computers in their homes before 1980. They’re like little teabaggers and climate change deniers: they assume the way things are now is the way things have always been. So when they see coloured movies and pictures, it’s going to feed into their wrong perceptions of how things were.

  9. khms says

    I’ve looked at the examples; to me, the colored pictures just look better in every single case. If they wanted to make a case against colorizing, I think they failed spectacularly.

    I have to add here that a friend occasionally does “arty” black-and-white photos, and they just don’t do anything for me. I hear people talk about arty B&W stuff, but I can’t remember being impressed unless the lack of color helps in an optical illusion.

    Also, I’ve been in environments that were almost black-and-white (for example, high in the mountains), and the lack of color is the one thing that bothered me about that landscape. I wonder if that ties in with me feeling uncomfortable if I have to work without syntax colorization?

  10. Holms says

    Ugh, the MLK photo (scroll nearly halfway down) is obnoxiously bad. All bar one of the people present have almost uniform jaundiced skin tone, and all bar one (same guy) seem to have lost resolution somehow.

    As for the general case, I think colorising can provide a sometimes interesting new take on an old work, sort of like covering a song and trying something new with it, but is generally not very useful, and cannot be used in place of the original.

  11. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Next, a discussion about reformatting 4:3 aspect ratio TV shows to 16:9, and making stereo versions of old mono recordings.

    I’m not opposed to updating old works to match new fashions, as long as the original versions are still available.

  12. Carl says

    @Daniel Schealler: For me, it’s not about the quality of the colorization, though I know others make that argument and I think it has some validity in many cases.

    The problem I have with colorization is an artistic one. I can understand the view that colorizing a movie creates a “new work of art,” but that’s simply not how colorizations are presented in any case I know of. Rather, they’re sold as improvements on the original, with equal artistic merit but more modern technology. And the primary market for colorization isn’t people who are curious about an alternate version of a beloved film, it’s people who see black-and-white photography as outdated and refuse to watch a black-and-white movie.

    I *don’t* think a colorized movie can impart to viewers the same artistic experience. And in many (most?) cases, the colorization is performed without the consent, or even against the will, of the filmmakers. That’s a vulgar approach, based on marketing rather than on artistic vision.

    @John Morales: Most colorization techniques alter the brightness of the image, not just overall but within the frame. So simply turning your television’s “color” setting all the way down won’t give you the original image.

    Watching a black-and-white movie isn’t just about the lack of color itself, it’s about the lighting, cinematography, and other artistic choices made by the filmmakers. And in most cases, those are irreversably altered by the colorization process, even if you watch it with the color off.

  13. Carl says

    One interesting case is filmmaker Frank Darabont, who has an affinity for black-and-white cinematography, and has released at least of couple of his works, originally filmed in color, in alternate black-and-white versions. He originally wanted to film The Mist in black and white, but the movie studio wouldn’t agree to it, so it was released to theaters in color. Here’s his introduction to the alternate black-and-white version that was included on the DVD & Blu-ray: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-64pR2ARecY

  14. kellyw. says

    Sure it’s a good idea, as long as it doesn’t serve as a replacement for the original images. While I can appreciate the aesthetic that well done b and w photography provides, there’s something nice about seeing a moment in time represented in full color–I feel disconnected when looking at b and w images.

  15. Daniel Schealler says

    @left0ver1under

    I’ve had students ask me why nobody uses their cell phones in pre-1990 movies…

    There’s a regular narrative device that we come across in a lot of television and film that took place before mobile phones became ubiquitous. The good guys are split into two teams. One team goes to do action stuff. The other team goes to do research and exposition stuff. The camera switches between these two perspectives frequently so that the audience can get their exposition without getting too bored.

    Then to drive suspense at the end, the research-and-exposition team discover a critical fact that the action team needs to not lose horribly. But there’s no way to get that information to them in time!

    This narrative dance becomes a little bit harder to pull off whenever mobile phones are ubiquitous. Coming up with excuses why certain characters don’t have their phones on them can sometimes be very painful to watch.

    ——————————————————————-
    @Carl

    The problem I have with colorization is an artistic one. I can understand the view that colorizing a movie creates a “new work of art,” but that’s simply not how colorizations are presented in any case I know of. Rather, they’re sold as improvements on the original, with equal artistic merit but more modern technology. And the primary market for colorization isn’t people who are curious about an alternate version of a beloved film, it’s people who see black-and-white photography as outdated and refuse to watch a black-and-white movie.

    I *don’t* think a colorized movie can impart to viewers the same artistic experience.

    Two different works of art don’t impart the same artistic experience? No surprise there. 🙂

    Thing is, I don’t think that’s a problem. If you like the original work better, and someone else likes the colourized version better, and you both get to enjoy the art that you like… That’s a good thing.

    It sounds to me like you dislike and disapprove of the preferences of others when they don’t align with your own.

    Taking issue with it strikes me as being snooty and dismissive. If people prefer colourized work to the originals, I don’t see any basis for telling them that they’re wrong to do so. It feels like we’re getting very close to Ze Frank’s Don’t Yuk My Yum territory.

    And in many (most?) cases, the colorization is performed without the consent, or even against the will, of the filmmakers. That’s a vulgar approach, based on marketing rather than on artistic vision.

    Art only ‘belongs’ to the artist in the sense that capitalism requires this to be the case in order for artists to a) earn a living, and b) prevent other people from ‘stealing’ their art in the sense of turning profit from an artist’s work without giving fair compensation.

    Outside legitimate capitalist concerns around ownership of art (and yes, there are many illegitimate capitalists concerns around ownership of art that I choose to not get into here), art does and should belong to everyone.

    So long as original works aren’t destroyed and reasonable applications of intellectual property rights are followed, I see no inherent problem with the idea of mixing, altering, or combining existing works of art to create new ones.

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