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Colouring the past

by Bruno Van de Casteele

March 24, 2013

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Donate "An image is worth more than a thousand words", so goes the saying. And rightly so. As a historyenthusiastI am by default interested in reading reports and descriptions from things longtime past. But I'm most intrigued by photographs that give a window into the past.

One of those early events that were documented in photographs, is the American Civil War (1861-1865). This war is one of my pet interests, which is maybe surprising for a European. But these early black and white photographs, even with their constraints (e.g. long exposure), show the reality and humanity of people 150 years ago, fighting other humans (nothing has changed ...). It reminds us of the atrocity of war, and gives a human touch to arrows on a map and casualty figures.

Recently I stumbled across the above photograph from that era (via The Daily Beast), showing a younger Custer and his fellow soldiers posing for the camera. Now I knew about the practice of colouring black and white photographs. It seems like a nice idea to render the image more realistic, as black and white seems to induce more "distance" to reality. However, the examples I knew of colouring are not that "natural" as this one. Sometimes it even gave a weird psychedelic look (like this oneof President Lincoln). But this picture, showing soldiers posing in front of their tent, seemseerilyrealistic. It seems almost taken from a recent battle reenactment, featuring actors.

But the picture in black and white is really from that time. Google Images easily returns the original. And it is also quite clear that it has been coloured afterwards. But was it really done when colouring pictures was popular?

According to Wikipedia, hand-colouring was popular at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of twentieth century, and fell out of favour with the advent of colour film. It was done by hand, and can be considered a sort of art-form. It originated in Europe, and, remarkably, became very popular in the beginning of the twentieth century in Japan. Wikipedia links to some nice examples.

But still, these examples are like the others I knew. Well done, but you can still spot it. This picture is completely different. A small phrase in the Wikipedia article linked above mentioned Photoshop, and then it dawned on me. All black and white copies I could find on the Internet, even in higher resolution, had scratch marks and damage on it, quite normal for a picture 150 years old. The coloured photograph didn't... So I'm quite certain that this photo was first touched up to remove damage, and then coloured and processed to look like a modern photograph. I even found how-to's that explained how this can be done, given some decent knowledge of Photoshop. This example is quite like the example from the Civil War, including the very realistic feel. As you can read in the how-to, this was actually from a black and white photograph.

I think that settles the case. Yes, it's still a nice photograph and yes it still is worth more than a thousand words. The colouring helps in imagining the past, but it was done with modern technology. Kudos to the people who did it, because it probably was a lot of work. Oh and to make it full circle ... other how-to's (like this one) explain how to obtain, in Photoshop, that hand-colouring "vintage" look. So be skeptical, while at the same time enjoying historical pictures.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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