Should we colourize images and what are the ethics of colourizing images? I discuss with you these topics and more in this blog post.

Firstly we can all agree that History was not in black and white. People didn’t live in a multitude of grey tones. There was plenty of colour around back then as there is today.

You will see many a project of colourised military photos, WW1 and Historical figures, Naval images and RAF, famous figures and war scenes. You will find most popular events have been coloured, some done very well and others not so. Some merely to get on the click-bait bandwagon of colourised images and their short-lived wow factor.

I want to talk about these images and others and the “need” to have them coloured.

Let’s start with the military images. I’ll use the phrase to cover all the different divisions of the forces, air, sea, and land. We pretty much know all the corresponding colours of the uniforms and military paraphernalia. Colouring these images is just drawing upon what we already know. In many cases, we will see a quick fix of green uniforms and helmets and what we already see in museums and history book. This oversimplifies the process but that is all that is involved, we know the colours, It is easy to picture in your mind what these images should look like.

In a recent BBC broadcast (link live at the time of posting) the presenters discussed the ability to empathize with these images in black and white and how worrying it was that to feel any kind of empathetic response from these Historical events, they had to be in colour. As if in black and white they were less important or we as humans felt like they were less real. The fact still stands that they were once in colour.

Colourists will always gravitate towards these images, those of a centenary event or on the anniversary of “this” or “that”. These events are often the most coveted and most well know. Therefore they become consumed in the click-bait flurry of a Sunday morning scroll of the social media streams. Those colourists who choose to do this for fun were dammed by one presenter on the radio show saying it should not be fun to colourise images of war and atrocities but one of a far more serious nature. Done for the right reasons and ethics, not for click-bait and entertainment on a dull Sunday morning.

This brings me to the lesser known images of history.

Everyday scenes of almost banal nature. A train passing over a bridge for example. Why would anyone want to colour that? I chose to colour this image of a train because of that very reason. Not a huge amount was known about it, it was not a significant event, just a great photo.  This type of photo is complex to colour. I had to research where it was, what type of natural rock occurred and its colour, the trees that grew, the colours of those leaves and the season and lighting. Everything about the image was researched and pegged down before it was coloured.

Not one colour added because it “looked nice”. It is not an image that will go viral or one that speaks of Historical anguish or torment. Just a great photo that needed colour to tell the story of the seasons of change and two little boys watching a train with their indefeasibly large bicycles.
One more photo that drew my attention was this image.

Another image crying out for colour to tell the story. Researched for location, flora, type of boat and canopy and season. I meticulously coloured this image over the course of a week. Why? not for fun! but for historical interest and exercise in the preservation of a story that needed to be told. The day now looks hot and hazy and the folks stopping for some lunch look like they are benefiting from the shade. In black and white this is more difficult to appreciate.

Next time you see images as “click-bait” appearing in your streams, look long and hard at those images and think to yourself, did they need colouring? Were these images around at the time, colour photos anyway? What is the real purpose for colouring these images, click-bait or some other genuine historical reason?

Here is another colourized image with much research. This one is a “Swimmers on Belle Isle 1903“.  Make up your own mind if it is click-bait or a labour of love for the histories sake and share your thoughts in the comments section.

Original Black and White image source

The Truth according to search.

One other issue that arises is when students or researchers try to find images on the internet. They may get presented with images in colour. If not correctly labelled they will not know if the image was originally colour or not. This presents a problem. Search engines push popular content to the top of their results. Without the correct information, it becomes difficult to know what is the truth and what is fiction. If researching the colour of something and a colourist choose a particular colour because it looks nice, then it could then become “truth”. The line could get very blurred without care.

What are your thoughts?