Colorization of Black & White: Maybe Not


Laurie says:

I have been a black and white photographer for most of my time as an artist. When I began my Memory Landscapes: A Visual Memoir project, I needed color to express the aesthetic of memory that I want, and for the art and the visual authenticity of the story. Of course this has made me think a great deal about color and its uses and values.

There are fine color photographers and I’ve frequently featured color photography in posts on Body Impolitic. But it seems to me to be that color photography is the sensory default that we find most comfortable. Black and white photography automatically demands a greater involvement in the work.

Color can create an illusion of reflecting reality that we tend to accept without reflection or skepticism. It’s a fundamental part of how the world is represented to us. We are encouraged to react this way both by our natural inclinations and the intense media visual world we live in. Color makes it harder for us to see the manipulations in “real” color photography. Black and white photography engages you without the fake reality of color getting in the way. And what makes good color photography hard is that it has to disengage itself from that “fake reality”. (This does not apply to non-representational work.)

Zsolt Batori from the PH21 gallery in Budapest said this about their RGB color exhibition. (He wrote the best comment ever on a single picture of mine when it won the Juror’s prize in the Body exhibition at PH21.)

“There are two kinds of photographs with respect to the significance of their use of colours. On the one hand, ever since colour film technology became widely available, colour has become the default in most photographic practices. That is, some photographs are in colour not because their colours bear some special significance (compared, for instance, to their possible black and white counterparts) but simply because the available film or digital technology has long turned colour to be the common method of capturing photographic images. We may think of these photographs as colour by default. On the other hand, colours are often central to the meaning of photographs for their emphatic, symbolic, psychological, social, compositional, etc. significance. These photographs would not work in black and white the same way; that they are in colour is not merely a technological given, rather, it is an integral, formative and significant aspect of their photographic meaning. We may think of these photographs as colour by significance.”

I love the phrase “color by significance”. What I want to write about today is the colorization of black and white photography in this context. Colorization of black and white work removes both the historical authenticity and most frequently the art as well. Once it replaces black and white (particularly in film), the original work tends to diminish and sometimes disappear.

A good example of problematical colorization is Marina Amaral’s work colorizing historical black and white photographs. She feels colorization makes them more real and life-like. My friend Tracy Schmidt sent me a link to Amaral’s work and my immediate impulse was to find and compare her pictures with some of the original black and white images.

Amaral says: “Color has the power to bring life back to the most important moments: One day I decided to combine my fascination with history and skill using Photoshop.  I started to restore and put color into photos that were originally black and white, allowing people to see history from a new and colorful perspective. Each photo is made to be realistic by recognizing the value behind each one of them, respecting and preserving their stories, paying attention to the finer details and maintaining their original essence. Every completed work has gone through long and in depth research, and is supported by the opinions of experts in each particular area if necessary, to faithfully reproduce the original colors and atmosphere. My work ranges from simple portraits to complex and detailed images, taken from various historical periods covering a wide range of topics.”

This not how I understand the process. She refers to her work as “restoring” black and white photographs by making them in color. Restoration means that you are bringing work back to its original form. Typically repairing the ravages of time. coloring original black and white work is not restoration.

Most important, the aesthetic of the composition of black and white photographs falls apart in color. (It’s like looking at the Mona Lisa in black and white.) The use of color for a historical photograph when all the work of the time was black and white makes it less real, not more. The viewer is deprived the the photographer’s presence in the work. (It’s as if it happened yesterday – and it didn’t.) All of this assumes that the colors are right and usually they aren’t. And of course “natural color” is a whole other conversation.

Amaral’s work is really a framing for my thoughts about colorization of black and white originals. This is done routinely both artistically and commercially to photographs and films. She is appropriating and transforming historical images and this is artistically valid. The images she creates are transformed into her own original art. But this is neither restoration nor “maintaining their original essence.”

An example of an original and Amaral’s colorization is below. Besides the colorization, she either cropped or used a cropped version of the photograph that eliminates dramatic framing in black vertical lines. These lines are crucial in the black and white composition but do not work in color.




In this photograph, people at Times Square in New York City are seen reading a news ticker about D-Day (Normandy landings), the largest seaborne invasion in history. D-Day occurred on 6 June 1944 when Allied forces targeted a 50-mile (80 km) stretch of Normandy, France to begin the invasion of German-occupied western Europe. It was the beginning of the end of WW2 in Europe.

The photo itself was taken by either Howard Hollem, Edward Meyer or MacLaugharie on the morning of 6 June 1944 and is available through the Library of Congress.