Colorful History

Can we learn more from our past by colorizing black-and-white photographs or are they best left untouched?  – 

Romanov sisters, Grand Duchesses Maria, Olga, Anastasia, and Tatiana, ca 1910.

Romanov sisters, Grand Duchesses Maria, Olga, Anastasia, and Tatiana, 1910.

Abraham Lincoln, 1865

Abraham Lincoln, 1865 16th United States President.

May 27, 1944

May 27, 1944. Jewish women and children arriving at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in occupied Poland. Photo sources:


These color photographs are the work of archivist Dana Keller. Gone are the old days of colorizing black-and-white photos – images in which the alteration was obvious.

This is a new digital age of colorization. Work like Keller’s is striking for its apparent realism – making it seem as though someone with a digital camera stood in front of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to snap a photo of the Commander in Chief.

Such efforts are becoming more common. Several series of colorized photos have popped up on social media, and LIFE magazine recently released a collection of color photos of the Nazi invasion of Poland to mark the 75th anniversary of the attack.

But as captivating and vivid as the color images are, do they disrupt the legacy of the original black-and-white photographs?

Here is a point-counterpoint discussion on the subject, courtesy of Mr. Keller and Dr. Laura Gellott, Professor Emeritus of History at University of Wisconsin-Parkside:

‘Closer to reality’

The majority of people see the photos in a new way when they are colorized, and they express that it actually helps them to appreciate the events and figures of the past,” wrote Keller, in an email to me.

Keller said by adding color, the photographs seem more familiar to the viewer, who can subsequently feel “a little closer to the reality in which they were taken.”

Keller, who has a background in both art and photography along with a degree in archival science, says he strives to focus on the subtleties of color and shading in his work. The skill involved is in some ways akin to painting, he said.

“Light interacts with the world in very complex ways; coloring is not as simple as painting a broad stroke of blue on a person’s jacket or green on a field of grass. There are many, many colors just in the landscape of a person’s skin. Not just the spectrum of reds and browns, but there are elements of blues and greens and purples in the shadows, and in underlying veins visible through translucent skin,” he said.

“The color of light itself, whether the photo was taken outdoors or indoors, will affect everything as well.”

Louis Armstrong, 1946

Louis Armstrong, 1946, in New York. Photo source –

Keller’s projects include historical documentaries, books and private commissions of ancestral photographs. Each project requires researching the time, setting and persons to determine the appropriate colors, but Keller said study can only take him so far.

“It then comes down to some educated guessing. Grey values hint at what the possible colors could be; mix that in with some context clues, and you can usually come pretty close,” he said.

But Keller said the practice of colorizing historic photographs is frowned upon by some in his circle of archivists. While Keller understands those critiques, he said the overall response to his work has been overwhelmingly positive. He stressed that his work is done out of respect for history.

“They are not meant to be replacements or improvements on the originals, nor are they meant to assume any resemblance of authority as a historical artifact,” he said.

“The reason they exist is to give the viewer an opportunity to see an image from history with a different perspective.”


‘Record of the past’


History is both the actual events of the past and the record of those events, said Dr. Gellott.

“Photos are a record. If they are altered by adding color, we change a record that the creator made, saw, approved, filed and preserved,” she said.

Dr. Gellott noted that there were likely some cases in which both the photographer and subject viewed the black-and-white photos as a finished product.
“And thus, the image of the past captured in the photo was fixed in the mind of the creator and subject in black-and-white. Who are we to alter that?”


Dr. Gellott suggests that there is some merit in recognizing the difference between our current era and those that have passed.

“In a time when everything can be made to vanish just as it happens, the past literally devouring itself – Snapchat, for example – is there not some value in recognizing that there is a past, an earlier time, and that it was in fact different from the time in which we live?” she asked.

Dr. Gellott also questioned whether changing historic photographs could start a slippery slope leading to the alteration of the historic record in a more permanent fashion.

“Ending up with the famous examples of ‘The Commissar Vanishes,’ the way in which the old Soviet Union airbrushed people in and out depending on who was in favor at any one particular time,” she said.

I asked whether the colorized historic photos could be of use in the classroom, and Dr. Gellott said she did think some students may be more engaged by images they see as more immediate.

“But I would also want to show the original side-by-side with the colorized. I think it’s important to always have access to the actual record,” she said. “There is an advantage to conveying that the past does – for all that we might find contemporary parallels in situations – have a unique character that is all its own.”

“If the black-and-white photos convey this, that is good,” she said.


In the end

Personally, I understand both perspectives. As a journalist, I have an appreciation for anything original, unaltered and truthful.

That being said, most honest journalists would admit that everything we see and experience is through our own subjective lens. Pure objectivity is impossible. The documentation of history itself is subject to this phenomenon.

We even see colors themselves differently throughout our lives.

In her family memoir, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote of standing outside the funerals for three of the girls killed in Birmingham Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963.

“I don’t remember much except the recessional of coffins. They were small and white. In my mind’s eye, though, one of the coffins was pink,” she wrote.

One could argue this is one more reason to leave the original black-and-white photos unaltered – why add even more subjectivity into the equation? – or another reason to value new perspectives of a photographed moment already subject to the photographer’s own interpretation.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the release of “The Wizard of Oz,” which created a stir for the use of Technicolor in cinema. Perhaps the film that successfully incorporated black-and-white with color can provide guidance for this discussion.

Why not occasionally enjoy a journey to a colorful new land, if it grants us a new perspective?

Just as long as we remember the importance of returning to reality, which in both the film and in this case happens to be in black-and-white.


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