A summer day in Ardara, Co Donegal. A group of men and boys stretch out on a grassy shore or a dune. Most are staring at the camera lens. Some smile or laugh. The image appears both more informal and more contemporary than one would expect from a 130-year-old photograph.
How much of this is due to the original image and how much to the fact that it has been colorized for a modern audience? And what are we to make of the growing popularity of adding color to historic black and white photographs?
This week sees the release of Old Ireland in Color 2, John Breslin and Sarah-Anne Buckley’s successor volume to one of Irish publishing’s biggest hits of recent years. Meanwhile, Rob Cross’s The Color of Ireland, which similarly applies modern technology and historical research to bring color to black-and-white photographs spanning the period between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. , will be released in October. Both books are likely to feature high on pre-Christmas bestseller lists.
The public’s appetite for colorization is evident, but, as the authors of both books acknowledge, there are concerns about the falsification of the original historical record. And it’s interesting to consider what exactly happens when we react so strongly and positively to technique, and if we lose something in the process.
Concerns are not new. They are at least 40 years old, although colorization has been around much longer than that, long before the invention of color photography. Hand dyeing was an accepted practice from the beginning of the photographic era, in the mid-19th century, for still images and, subsequently, moving images. But digital technology made the process much easier starting in the 1980s, sparking controversy over the “vandalism” of classic films such as Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life.
In the years that followed, the colorization of classic films was largely abandoned, but the recent success of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old showed how to bring color and sound to archival footage of the First World War. world has breathed life and immediacy into images that previously seemed distant and emotionally opaque to contemporary audiences. For many of us, it seems, these processes can act as a sort of time machine, helping us to make a connection to an otherwise distant past.
This is clearly the logic behind the authors of the two new Irish books. In their introduction to Ireland in Color 2, Breslin, professor of electronic engineering with a background in the tech industry, and Buckley, professor of history, acknowledge the continued criticism of colorization in some circles, but they argue that their work is “part of the democratization of history, a tool to develop empathy and a link with the past while the original photograph remains intact”. Cross’s book tackles the issue more comprehensively, showcasing the originals in black and white alongside the colorized images and including essays by two historians, Diarmaid Ferriter and Donal Fallon.
Ferriter, in particular, is clearly not convinced by the ethics of the whole project. “The original images have a uniqueness that has subsequently been altered,” he writes. “It’s true that the originals remain to be seen, but the growing momentum behind colorization and the never-ending quest to ‘improve’ things, or make them easier to understand, also presents the danger of marginalizing the originals. “
Fallon is more optimistic. “The images shown here do not attempt to replace their original sources,” he writes. Rather, they can serve as a fascinating engagement with the past that could lead the viewer to explore the rich archival collections from which Rob has selected them. They also serve a very useful purpose in making us think about the images more broadly. – if colorization is manipulation, what about looking more closely at historical images in another way? “
Cross, who attaches as much importance to the restoration of damaged or degraded images as to their coloring, would no doubt agree. And it can often be difficult to tell how much the emotional impact of some of the images reproduced here rests on the colorization. One of the first images in Old Ireland in Color 2, of two Tipperary children in the years immediately following the famine, is both deeply eerie and familiar. These qualities were present in the original image.
In some cases, the viewer inevitably wonders how certain editorial choices were made. Why is this swimsuit in Dún Laoghaire’s baths red and the other blue? In others, like a photograph of a 1934 Blueshirt rally, the choices were a bit more obvious.
Both books feature many scenic streetscapes and familiar landmarks. Unsurprisingly, in this centennial year, both include many images from the War of Independence and the Civil War. Michael Collins figures prominently. Some photographs appear in both volumes. This is all good and may well reflect the tastes of the target audience as well as what is available in the archive. But some photographs have already been reproduced several times and one wonders if there was much merit in coloring them.
Also, for these eyes, the process works best when the image resolution is high and the focus is sharp. And some choices are confusing. The most modern photograph in Old Ireland in Color (perhaps deliberately ironic) is a 1964 portrait of Samuel Beckett, a man whose face was surely made for black and white.
But, for me, the images that resonate and truly transport are those of lesser-known people brought to life with vividness. An anonymous violinist straight out of a Boucicault comedy smiles amiably, pretending to play his instrument (which seems to lack a few strings). The colorization draws our attention to the detail and texture of her clothing, described in the book as “a thick, curly coat, which was virtually waterproof, corduroy pants, and sturdy studded boots” (Old Ireland in Color 2 grants special attention to the history of dress and material culture). A policeman sternly flaunting empty handbags thrown away by pickpockets following a Home Rule rally in Belfast brings comedic humanity to an era often defined only by its great historical events.
Importantly, the portrait of the O’Halloran sisters of Bodyke, Co. Clare gives the impression that it could have been taken this week rather than 1887, when the sisters threw cans of boiling water away to keep away the besieging bailiffs, “and Honoria herself managed to seize the ‘sword-bayonet’ of one of the policemen, who was trying to go through a window.” Even without this information, you would know just by watching them not to mess with the O’Halloran sisters.
Old Ireland in Color 2 is published by Merrion Press. The Color of Ireland, County by County, 1860-1960 will be published by Black and White on October 14