Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Civil War - in Living COLOR!

Color? Perhaps. But living? I am not quite certain. I recently had a conversation with my Twitter friend (tweep?) @Hungry4History regarding the merits of colorized Civil War photographs. We agreed that they offer an new look at a familiar subject. One on hand, the images let our imaginations take the helm. The color allows a modern observer to - perhaps - get a little closer to realism. But of course we do this with the full understanding that the colors chosen are left to the discretion of the artist. There is no way of knowing for certain the precise shade of blue a Union soldier's pants had faded to after a hard campaign. Still, as someone who has more than a passing interest in style - I think it is fun to imagine President Lincoln wearing a dark purple necktie as opposed to the customary black. Hello.

I am also troubled by these images for precisely that reason. We don't know. So in a sense, these are more like forgeries...or at best, cases of tampering with historical documents. And they never really look quite right - the eyes of the living resemble the eyes of the dead. Like the cold lifeless eyes of a fish staring back at you in the supermarket. These efforts to resurrect the Civil War to a vibrant new life of color are reminiscent of the Ted Turner campaign years ago to colorize classic black and white films. We all remember how that worked out. They were...and still are...quite horrible.

These people are all dead now, some killed in battle, others by disease, and still others of natural causes decades removed from the conflict. But they were quite alive when their images were captured - painstakingly so with the technology of the age. And the black and white stills do offer life. Look closely at their faces. The subtlety of shade and deep texture reveal so much more than you might at first think. The history of the war is written on their countenances in black, white, and every shade in between...in living detail. Does the colorization enhance this notion, or distract us from it?



  1. I too have an issue with colorizing these old photographs. Why tinker with the historical record? And just like colorized films, these images look "off" somehow. It is a far cry from "living color." One would think that digitization would allow for a more realistic look. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

  2. Oddly enough I despise colorized films, particularly classics and refuse to watch them but don't have the same problem with Civil War photos. I particularly like colorized portraits, if they are done well. I have seen some bad ones though, such as Lincoln with a "peaches and cream" complexion!

  3. Colorizing is just another vehicle to draw interest from the average citizen who never really considered history as of any importance. Just as the NPS visitor centers going to upgraded audio and visual media, this too could be considered a way to stimulate interest in the history that so many of us find fasinating.

  4. I recently had a chance to see "The Civil War and American Art" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. My only regret is that I didn't spread the word sooner about this captivating exhibition that closes at the Smithsonian on April 28. If you get to Washington between now and then, make sure to stop by the museum. Once the exhibition leaves the nation's capital, it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and remain there from May 27 to September 2, 2013.
    Civil War Gifts