Adding Color to History – The Use of Photoshop on Historical Images

I wasn’t always comfortable with editing and altering images especially when it gets to historical photos. I’ve been thinking about the purpose of historians using Photoshop. Why do we need to use Photoshop, and what can it help to interpret history?

Beth talks about the same question in her blog, “Editing Historical Images: How Far Is Too Far,” and I’ve read several other blogs that raise the same issue. And I’ve had similar thoughts on what she said. Yes, I am somewhat comfortable with using spot healing brush to clean cracks or tears in a image. I also think adjusting the tone or changing contrast can help restore a worn-out picture. But it seems that not many people feel comfortable with manipulating historical images by using all the tools in Photoshop. Then, adding colors to a black and white picture can be something most historians never dared to think of.

Last week during class, we did engravings and adding colors to the Cat and Man. After struggling learning the several tools in Photoshop, I admit that it was quite fun to know those techniques. It was fun to imagine the man’s skin color and the color the cat. And indeed, it was all my imagination.

Is that why historians feel uneasy about adding color in history? We don’t know the exact color and there’s no evidence unless the actual object or a written proof of describing what the color is are left with us. Historian uses their imagination, too, but it’s not like we can guess and add whatever color we want to in historical images. We need to be responsible on how we handle and use the sources. So, even though I like learning these techniques in Photoshop, I am still worry about applying it on historical images. I would like to think more about the purpose of Photoshop for historians, and to learn how others feel about it.

This week, I commented on Becca’s blog. I wasn’t able to give helpful comments but I was amazed with her beautiful website and her image assignment.

I also went back to earlier blog post from Martin. He showed how color can give life to a black & white photo. Thanks for sharing the link!

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4 comments

  1. Mika-
    I agree, it is definitely difficult to work through how I feel about the process of modifying images. I think you raised some really interesting questions. You are right, it’s difficult to choose colors and apply them because it is hard to know what colors these objects would have been. The process made me want to research clothing styles and fabric trends in order to make the right choices!

  2. I agree with your reservations–I would add that I think colorizing does have its place, particularly in outreach and “public history.” Look at how frequently major websites like CNN will feature rare color photos from, say, World War II. The public craves getting a more “colorful” look at the past.

    The thing to remind ourselves is that color photography itself isn’t a completely transparent process–the film or digital process, as well as the equipment, lighting, etc., all somewhat affect the look of the photograph. It is very rare that a color picture of something looks exactly as it appears to any given observer in real life.

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