‘Deoldifying’ Ireland

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Platform, Volume 29

Does photo colourisation bring us closer to the past?

By Emily Mark-Fitzgerald

In 1988 Ted Turner announced that he intended to colourise Citizen Kane. A critical and popular outcry soon forced a retreat, though Turner continued to colourise black-and-white films from both RKO and MGM’s back catalogues for decades, albeit with lukewarm public reception. Three decades later, colourisation’s technologies and public reactions to them have drastically altered: Peter Jackson’s They shall not grow old (2018) colourised and digitally manipulated First World War documentary footage to wide acclaim for its often startling contemporaneity, and was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Documentary. That same year saw the publication of The colour of time: a new history of the world, 1850–1960, a collaboration between the digital colourist Marina Amaral and the popular historian Dan Jones, which topped best-seller lists and has been translated into eight languages.

The open-source colourisation software ‘DeOldify’ (also launched in 2018) has resulted in a veritable ‘colourisation craze’. Now hundreds (if not thousands) of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds specialise in presenting ‘deoldified’ images, colourised with varying degrees of skill, often drawing upon newly available digitised public collections. In the Irish context, Old Ireland in colour (Irish Academic Press, 2020), created by John Breslin using DeOldify, with commentary from historian Sarah Anne Buckley, won the Best Irish-Published Book of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards.

As a historian of nineteenth-century art and visual culture, I have observed these developments with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement. People’s enthusiasm for colourised historical photography is certainly genuine, heartfelt and pervasive: many delight in how colour makes distant subjects seem to them more ‘alive’ and ‘real’. Others argue that it prompts new engagement with photographic collections, reawakening public interest in history. Still others claim that their versions are in fact more ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ than the originals, as they draw upon ‘research’ to add more historical information to the image or better capture the world ‘as it was’.

Without dismissing the emotional reactions that such photographs prompt, these claims ought to be interrogated. Public reception of colourised images is often based on two initial assumptions. The first is that older monochrome photographs contain colour information that can be ‘restored’ or ‘recovered’ by digital colourists. In short: they don’t. Early photo processes were not sensitive to the entire colour spectrum; mid-nineteenth-century processes like collodion, for example, were only sensitive to blue light, and so green, red and yellow tones can all look the same in collodion prints. In other words, there is no algorithm (and never will be) that can recover and apply colour in reverse from information that ‘resides’ in the original photograph.

Colourists often reiterate that research informs their guesses, but this is usually articulated in vague terms and is generally limited to historical artefacts, sometimes hair and eye colour, and occasionally costume. DeOldify’s own software utilises AI ‘deep learning’ to select colour tones, but its ‘learning’ is based on analysis of modern photographs and its products are subsequently adjusted by users to create their preferred version. Unfortunately, colourised images quickly become unmoored in the digital realm from explanations of what ‘artistic’ licence has been taken, and the rationale for such choices soon becomes opaque.

Ironically, for a practice that insists upon its superior historical verisimilitude, it produces images that mimic digital imaging aesthetics: skin tones, for example, are usually smoothed of imperfections and made homogeneously uniform. Alternatively (or additionally), as the visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards has noted, colourists apply an anachronistic ‘vintage’ palette to remind the viewer of the ‘pastness’ of the image. Neither choice shows the past ‘as it really was’: both rely on the subjective imposition of a contemporary eye on a historical artefact. What is rarely acknowledged is that colour is not a universal, transhistorical or value-free concept.

Public commentary on colourised historical images suggests that misunderstandings of original photographic media are endemic. That the source material is generally only treated as an ‘image’, as opposed to a physical photographic object (albumen print, daguerreotype, calotype, lantern slide, etc.), does little to promote public understanding of divergent early photographic processes, their fascinating original qualities and their limitations.

This denial of materiality points to a second widespread assumption: that photographs ‘illustrate’ or simplistically document the historical past. Susan Sontag memorably critiqued that assumption in her seminal On photography (1974):

‘The photographer was thought to be an acute but non-interfering observer—a scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal, objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an evaluation of the world. It became clear that there was not just a simple activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing”, which was both a new way for people to see and a new activity for them to perform.’

The knowledge that photography does not exist merely as a ‘record’ of nature or history and has a protean relationship with ‘realism’—as a medium inscribed by institutions, individuals, cultures and processes—is normative for visual historians, but perhaps less so for historians unaccustomed to working with these sources outside of evidentiary contexts. Writing in 1988 in The burden of representation, John Tagg observed that ‘The photograph is not a magical “emanation” but a material product of a material apparatus set to work in specific contexts, by specific forces, for more or less defined purposes. It requires, therefore, not an alchemy but a history, outside which the existential essence of photography is empty and cannot deliver.’

Above: Before and after colourisation—an 1888 eviction scene in Woodford, Co. Galway, one of several reproduced in Old Ireland in colour (Merrion Press, 2020).
(Lawrence Collection/NLI)

Put simply, photographs are not just (or even) images of history: they are history. Indeed, the ‘evidentiary’ nature of photography, especially documentary photography, has long been one of the most contested concepts within photographic theory and practice, ever since it first emerged in the early nineteenth century. The very fact that a documentary photograph is so persuasive as a form of encounter with the past ought to compel us to look closer, and to think more deeply about what the photograph is and what it is doing: colourisation prompts us only to admire what it shows on the most superficial level.

The ethics of ‘photographic seeing’ become even more complex in cases where subjects had no agency in their picturing. Old Ireland in colour’s colourisation of 1880s eviction photography from the Lawrence Collection at the National Library brings this paradox into focus. In its quest to make the experience more ‘real’ to viewers through insertion of hyperreal colour, it unwittingly re-performs the voyeurism and spectacle that were part of eviction photography’s original ethos and consumption, as many evictions were photographed for propaganda purposes. Although the book’s introduction acknowledges ‘the ethical concerns that arise from altering these primary documents’, its authors do not engage with this issue.

Few other media can equal the instant dopamine hit of a compelling photograph, as anyone with an Instagram account knows. Colourised images provoke recognition, familiarity, even comfort: these pictured subjects from the distant past appear ‘just like us’—living, breathing people who experience(d) the world ‘in full colour’—although, as noted, the applied colour is an invention, a fiction that neither photographer nor subject actually experienced in that form. To see oneself in history—to collapse the unsettling gap between past and present—is the motivation for much of the wildly popular heritage industry of military re-enactments, television and filmed historical dramas, and countless other simulacra. Yet somehow only photo colourisation manages to maintain a grip on the popular imagination as more ‘real’ or ‘true’ than the historical trace. In my experience, when challenged about or confronted with these problems, enthusiasts revert to a declaration of the personal pleasure that making and viewing such images brings. Historians are not immune to such pleasures either, and I suspect that the lure of seeing anew historical events, many of which are so intimately familiar, may explain why some historians have failed to subject this form of ‘evidence’ to the same scrutiny applied elsewhere in their scholarship.

As with many heritage practices, colourisation reveals much about its users’ desires and preconceptions but it tells us little or nothing about the photographic object it manipulates, and even less about the historical experience it purportedly ‘shows’. Colourists insist that their practice is a harmless hobby, insofar as no damage is done to the original photograph, which remains safe in the archive. And they are right, up to a point: colourisation does not pose an existential threat to photography, since its very history is, as Geoffrey Batchen explained in Burning with desire (1999), a long sequence of technological interventions that reconfigure relationships between ‘nature, knowledge, representation, time, space, observing subject, and observed object’. Seen from this perspective, ‘deoldifying’ is but the latest reconfiguration of these elements, for which many precedents exist. It is certainly not without negative consequence, however, and visual pleasure does not obviate critique. Most significantly, colourisation degrades our ‘ways of seeing’ and diminishes our capacity to appreciate and understand photography itself. And in our image-saturated present—the era of ‘deep fakes’ and ‘fake news’—this capacity has arguably never been more critical.

Emily Mark-FitzGerald is Associate Professor and Head of the School of Art History and Cultural Policy at University College Dublin.

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