Colorizing Old Photos

Recently, the trend of taking old black-and-white photos and colorizing them, either by hand or in Photoshop, has begun to take off. The results can be stunning, giving a new depth and personality to photos that often get passed over when students turn to those pages in their history books. However, some people argue that colorizing these old photographs — even when the original black-and-white photo is untouched — devalues them. So, let’s spend some time looking at the pros and the cons of greater colorization in old photographs.

Pro — It makes the photograph more accessible. Colorized photos are generally easier for people to relate to. They look more “real” than most black-and-white photos, especially when the subject of the photo is a person. Images of Einstein, Darwin, Lincoln, and Marilyn Monroe that have been colorized look more human to viewers. It’s much easier for most people to remember what these people looked like and to extrapolate personality and emotions when they can imagine that person in color.

Con — It gives an unrealistic expectation of older equipment’s performance level. Colorizing old photos is something that must be done by hand. It also requires a bit of knowledge of what colors were used in clothing of that era, what color eyes the person had, their hair color, and other minor details of the individual and the era captured in the photograph. Also, when only some images are colorized while others are left in black-and-white, people unfamiliar with photography may begin to believe that color photography existed much earlier than it truly did. A lot of people have heard the story of the person who brought a photo of their grandfather milking a cow to be edited to remove the cow that blocked the face of their grandfather in the photo. Colorizing photos may lead to more of this confusion among non-photographers.

Pro — It adds new life to the photograph. People, places, and animals live in color. Black and white photography, especially older photography, hides much of the depth and context that colors can give. How much more graphic would a photo like “The Federal Dead on the Field of Battle of First Day, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania” be if instead of seeing it in greyscale or sepia tones, it was colorized? How much clearer would the impact of the Great Depression be if Migrant Mother was shown in color instead of in black and white?

Con — It diminishes the art of black-and-white photography. Modern black-and-white photography is an artform that requires a good degree of skill in photography, a strong knowledge of composition, and the ability to capture the essence of a scene without requiring the colors in it. Black and white photography relies more heavily on knowing how to play with lighting to achieve the shadows and the effects the photographer is after. To cast that aside in favor of purely colorized photos does a disservice to the photographer and to his art.

So, what do you think? Do you prefer photos in their original black and white? Or do you like seeing old photos colorized? Let us know in the comments below!

— da Bird