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All photographs are products of their time – and they should be treated that way

13 May 2022

In March 2022, fact-checking websites Snopes and Full Fact assured readers that a photograph circulating on social media did indeed show a packed railway station platform in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, as residents of the besieged city tried to flee. The image went viral when people began sharing a version that had been digitally edited to turn it black and white, always accompanied by this text: ‘This is not from 1941. This is a photo from March 2022 with all the colour removed. A chilling reminder that history can repeat itself!’

References to the Second World War have fed both political rhetoric and media coverage of the war still raging in Ukraine. So too has photography, without which it would be almost impossible to imagine the devastating conflicts that have scarred the 20th and now 21st centuries.

But if photographs are such crucial evidence for documenting past and present, why does their digital manipulation receive so little comment or critique? Snopes and Full Fact did not investigate the editing of the Kharkiv station photograph, nor the source of the text that accompanied it. They simply confirmed its date, as if the clothing, train model and presence of mobile phones did not already make it clear that the image could not possibly be from 1941.

Digitally editing photographs to alter their appearance, most commonly by adding colour to black and white images, is now big business. Colourisation software allows anyone to try their hand at ‘bringing colour back’, as the website of DeOldify puts it. Family history researchers are a prime market: DeOldify is licensed to the MyHeritage website, with annual subscriptions from £89 per year and the first ten photographs colourised for free. It’s no wonder that acclaimed practitioners emphasise their craft, artistry, and laborious research.

Archives, heritage bodies, and museums have also embraced digital colourisation, among them the Tutankhamun archive at Oxford University, English Heritage and the Imperial War Museum. The latter allowed the director Peter Jackson to colourise, edit and change the speed of footage from the First World War for his acclaimed film, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). Scholars in film studies have, however, voiced concerns about the extent of Jackson’s changes, as well as the way such ‘restoration’ (a loaded term) denies the original film any status as a historical object.

Like any archival document, work of art, or primary source, motion pictures and photographs need to be understood as products of their time. Yet the rapturous reception of digital colourisation – even by some historians – lays bare some serious misunderstandings about the history of photography and the role of photography in shaping history. Digital colourisation relies on several false assumptions:

If colour technology had existed in the past, photographers would have used it.

Colour photography did exist from the late 19th century. Hand-tinting photographs was always an option, too, as was toning monotone photographs in shades of purple, brown, red, blue, or green. Black-and-white photographs were more useful, however, in part because they were easier to develop, print, and circulate.

Moreover, not every black-and-white photograph was the same. Different negative emulsions were sensitive to different parts of the colour spectrum and the choice of developing process and printing paper influenced how the image looked, as well.

Colour photographs are more accurate, real, or true.

Software such as DeOldify uses AI technology to collect colour data from recent photographs and add it to the images we know as black and white. But what colour is colour photography?

Look at photographs taken in colour from each decade since the 1930s, when Kodak introduced its Kodachrome colour reversal film, and you will see a range of colours depending on what film was used, how it was printed, and how a print or slide has aged since then. My Kodak slides from the 1990s are turning blue, and photos from my childhood in the 1970s have gone golden yellow for chemical reasons, not nostalgia. (Digital colouriser Marina Amaral often favours pastel tones, as if to make her images look vaguely ‘vintage’.) Colour in photography has its own history, though, which the pixel-point application of AI tones does not uncover but deny.

Lion discovery day (1907). One of the digitally colourised images included in English Heritage’s ‘Corbridge Roman Town’ exhibition, with the original image above. © Fairless Family

People in the past experienced the world in colour, so by colourising old photographs or films, we are simply seeing what they saw.

A photograph is not a window on the world. It is a representation, created with a camera lens whose optics are not equivalent to a human eye. That’s one reason you may often be disappointed with photographs you take – if you hoped that they would look like what you saw in front of you.

More importantly, a potent mix of social, technical, and historical factors has determined what, when, where and how photographs were taken – not to mention, who was and was not photographed. With so many photographic images in existence, it’s easy to assume that everything that ever happened has been captured on camera – or at least everything that mattered. We would be better off asking why any given photograph exists, at all.

Colourisation brings the past closer to us. Or the opposite, exemplified by the edited Kharkiv station image: Black-and-white photographs make the past feel far away.

Digital colourisers are up front about the emotional response they expect their work to have. Two assumptions here: first, that viewers are unable to relate to the people (less often, the places) that a photograph depicts if it is left in its original form – and second, that a sense of personal identification with the past is the best or only way to understand history. Far from it: history needs temporal distance. Appreciating changes over time is essential to all research into the past and does not stop us from feeling empathy for victims of war and other forms of violence, whether photographed or not.

Fact-checking websites play a crucial role at a time when the news circulates first on social media. Scruples about accuracy and sources should be familiar to historians, archivists and curators. Digital colourising has its place, for example in creative uses or for entertainment (ideally with the editing identified). But to conflate colour with truth and greyscale with a lie is to forget why cameras matter. Photography changed history because it changed what people did and how they behaved. It altered how they saw the world, each other, and themselves – and if that was in black and white, we owe it to both the past and present to respect those shades of grey.

One comment

  1. I loathe colourisation. All historical programmes here in France that include period moving picture footage are colourised and they look no more realistic than some of Hollywood’s more garish 1940s efforts. If you can’t be certain you’re recreating the original tones, leave it alone!

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