Saturday, March 9, 2013

OP-ED: Coloring Civil War Photos

As the title of this post suggests, this is merely my opinion. It is in no way intended to offend or to judge anyone.

I have mixed feelings concerning the colorization of Civil War era photos or for that practice to be applied to images made prior to color film. This is my personal taste. To me the black and white picture has less distraction from other things beyond the true subject, whatever that may be. I do realize that coloring can be helpful to some in their study. It can be looked upon as a progression of history and the study of it.

Colorizing photos is not new and has been around in some fashion for nearly as long as photography itself. Numerous examples can be found in the Library of Congress Photo and Print Collection, as well as state archives and historical society collections. They are generally limited to tinting the faces of the subject to add more life or adding some gold to a uniform. Over the last couple of years there has been a trend to digitally colorize the photographs of the American Civil War. Colorizing the old photos can, if done correctly, bring out subtle features that may be difficult to see in the original black and white. Folds in a uniform, texture of the cloth, or a button lost in the shadows are enhanced by adding color. Even the ground of a battlefield can be better appreciated with color added. While not quite three dimensional, color seems to sharpen the little things in a photograph. It is an art in its own right.

Photography of the mid Nineteenth century was a relatively new and interesting art form. The photos generally had a central subject, or focal point, that was intended to draw the viewer into the scene. The peripheral objects such as grass, trees, tables, and tents were just that. They just happened to be there. People viewing the photos at that time knew what color the uniforms were, that the grass was green and the sky was blue. Those things were taken for granted as they were not the subject.

The Twenty-first century removes us from the color of 150 years ago, and colorizing some of the portraits can be helpful to re-enactors, modelers, and just plain folk. It is interesting to see uniforms with rows of shiny brass buttons, or smoke curling from a campfire. Still, much of the coloring is based on educated guess, especially when dealing with Confederate uniforms. Now we can see, if not perfectly, what the soldiers were wearing, the color of the tents, tables,and what not. That is if the viewer does not get lost in the photograph by taking in everything. A scene with a group of officers in front of a tent now becomes the tent, what is in it? What is that lying on the ground next to it? What kind of tree is that? Is that a dog in the background? The officers suddenly become superfluous, lost in the jumble of what once was the background. A good example of this can be seen in the following image.
Burnside with aides near Warrenton Virginia 1862

One must look beyond the subject to the background to find the extra soldiers inside the tent. The main subject, Ambrose Burnside and aides is not appreciably lost. With color the men in the tent will become more obvious and then become the subject. I have not seen this in color, but it may come along. There are some photos that would lend themselves well to color, such as the following. I believe it has been color enhanced but I could not find a link to it.
110th Pennsylvania Infantry near Falmouth, Virginia, December 1862

In this image the subject is the soldiers, so color can enhance it without destroying the original intent of the photographer. So yes, I am all aboard for colorizing images such as these, although with the first example it can be a trade off between the original intent and the modern need to harness the images for newer interests and purposes or just pure curiosity.
Adding color to the images of casualties, some of which are quite grisly, seems to be the new order of the day. Copyright considerations do not allow me to add colored versions of images such as the following, but they are beginning to appear. A color version of this image can be seen here  .

Dead Confederates at Antietam
Casualty photos were new in the Civil War. The imagery of the conflict was largely sanitized and bloodless until after the battle of Antietam in the Autumn of 1862. Then things changed. The photographer Alexander Gardner had been there and soon his images would be on display at Matthew Brady's studio in New York City. The world outside of the immediate vicinity of a battlefield would soon see what war was. Many families had already been touched by the war prior to Antietam and knew of death or brutal wounds but even they were not familiar with the stark reality depicted in Gardner's work. As a New York Times reporter wrote on October 20, 1862:
Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battle-field, taken immediately after the action. Of all the objects of horror one would think the battle-field preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness. But, on the contrary, there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loath to leave them. You will see hushed, reverent groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by some strange spell that dwells in dead men's eyes. It seems somewhat singular that the same sun that looked down on the faces of the slain, blistering them, blotting out from the bodies all semblance of humanity, and hastening corruption, should have thus caught their features upon canvas, and given them perpetuity for ever. But it is so.[1]

Perhaps it is this same “terrible fascination” that is leading to the coloring of the casualty images. This is where I become uncomfortable with the work. Some of it is well done with only some darkening on the uniform around the wounds. They are not much different than the original. It is my opinion that these images should not be modernized with color, especially some of the more ghastly ones. My opinion may be influenced by the distance of 150 years between the event and today and I have seen the images for many years. The originals are quite terrible enough as they are. The distance of time and my familiarity with the images does not lessen the terrible aspect of the images. The original purpose of them was to show the horrors of the battlefield. They did, and they do, that quite effectively without addition.

Perhaps I am missing the intent behind coloring the dead. Perhaps, but I do have to ask: what benefit can we derive from coloring them?

As you see, I do see the benefits of coloring portraits and camp scenes but it is the dead that I have reservations about. If it advances the scholarship of history I will be all for it. For now though I just do not see it.

I will stick with the black and white, for you see, I know grass is green, the sky is blue... And blood is red.

The Picket

For images from the 19th century to the present, including Civil War casualties, see the following link. Images colorized and for sale.

For other color Civil War images and discussion of them, see the forum at Civil War Talk. Com. Ones marked as “GRAPHIC” are casualties. By looking through the other threads in that forum one can see the value of color for people looking for authenticity in their re enacting or modeling endeavors.

Images from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Online Catalog
Burnside “Warrenton, Virginia, General Ambrose E. Burnside and staff officers” from Alexander Garner, photographer

Camp of the 110th Pennsylvania Infantry, Near Falmouth, Virginia, December 1862 from

Antietam, Maryland; Bodies of Confederate dead gathered for burial” from Alexander Gardner, photographer