The Civil War, Now in Color!

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Colorized rebs

There is nothing new in adding color to Civil War era photographs.  Even during the War photographs would occasionally have tint supplied.  However, up until now the resulting products did not look like modern color photography.  Until now is the operative phrase:

Jordan J. Lloyd, a colorist for Dynamichrome, a digital image-restoration agency, brings old photos back to life, from grainy, glass-plate originals to high-resolution JPEGs. For the following images, Llyod researched extensively the Civil War era, down to the shoulder marks of commanders. He cleaned up scratches and blemishes and corrected for light exposure to restore the images to their original condition.

Lloyd then applied multiple layers of color to the original, much like highlighting an image with a colored pencil. The more layers piled on, the more realistic the photo becomes, Lloyd says. Extra layers reveal a slight flush in the subjects’ faces, sharpen reflections, and add gleam to metals in the scene.

I am of two minds about this development.  Part of me echoes the death bed statement of Orson Welles regarding the colorization of black and white films:  “Keep Turner and his crayons away from my films!”  On the other hand, the participants in the Civil War did not see the world in black and white as depicted in the Civil War photographs.  It cannot be denied that skillful colorization of Civil War photographs brings to life images that now look as if they were taken of Civil War reenactors.  However, is this a good thing?  Old grainy black and white photos remind us of something that we must always keep in mind when studying history:  the past is a foreign country.  Do these colorized photos give them a false contemporary feel, and encourage us in the mistaken belief, even if unconscious, that these people are just like us, merely wearing different garb?

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3 Comments

  1. Years ago I saw a TV documentary titled “World War II In Color” that featured actual color film footage taken during the war (color film did exist at the time but was infrequently used). I was very moved by it, in large part because it made the soldiers and civilians in the pictures seem more “real” and more like the children, teens and 20-somethings that I knew. It’s easy to forget nowadays that WWII was not fought by gray-haired grandparents (as they are now) but by “kids” of high school and college age (which they were at the time).

    I don’t believe the past is as much of a “foreign country” as we think. Human nature, after all, doesn’t change much and the people who lived through the Civil War WERE “just like us”. They didn’t have all the whiz-bang technology that we have, of course, and their physical lives were more difficult and precarious than ours; but they had many of the same hopes, fears and desires that we do, and in some ways, were more thoughtful and more knowledgeable than we are.

  2. In some ways they were like us Elaine and in many other important ways they were not. They had a deep patriotism that most of our contemporaries do not share. The same is true in regard to religious faith. They, and when I say “they” I am referring to a majority of the people who lived through the Civil War, were inured to hardships that many today who are unfamiliar with the period would find difficult to fathom. They assumed that democratic government could cure most of the world’s ills, an optimism that few of us share today. Even the most radical of them then would seem quite conservative to most people today. Death was a common part of their lives in a way that it is not today. Bodies were laid out in parlors, people would enter into formal mourning for a year, and it was a rare family that did not lose several children, usually quite young, to the Grim Reaper. They knew who they were and what they stood for, a stability that many of us would envy but few of us have today. We view their time now through books, a few paintings, and many photographs, rather than the living reality they experienced. We see them as in a glass, darkly, to crib from Saint Paul, and in many ways we understand them as little as they would understand us, if they could have foreseen us. History is wonderful, but it can never give us but the shadow of the past.

  3. The detail “pop” in the colorized images is interesting. I wonder if that’s a natural evolution of the process, or creative license is occasionally employed . . .

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