The Civil War has long been viewed through a black-and-white lens. Photographs taken by the early pioneers of photography; Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner, have greatly impacted our perception of the war. Soldiers, towns, battlefields and political figures are remembered as ghostly figures, draped in drab shades of grey. I’ve often wondered if the nostalgia we have for this period in history would be any different if those historical moments were captured in color.
That question wasn’t lost on photographers of the time. Even when photography was in its infancy, photographers attempted to colorize photographs by hand to make them more realistic. Everything from watercolor and ink to pastels and crayons were used to bring color to an image. For example, watercolor could be applied in a thin, transparent veil that allowed the detail of the black-and-white image underneath to show through.
The Civil War in Color
For various reasons, there has been a recent movement among historians, artists, and photographers to colorize the Civil War. In once such instance, the History Channel produced a four-part documentary titled “Blood and Glory: The Civil War in Color,” in which more than 500 black-and-white photos were colorized for the series. The documentary aimed to use the colorized photos to show viewers how those who lived – and died – had experienced the war: in vivid color.
In 2012, professional cinematographer and director John C. Guntzelman published the book, The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Reenactment of the War Between the States. Sourced from the Library of Congress, Guntzelman colorized more than 200 photos featuring portraits of famous leaders, ordinary soldiers, and depictions of American life during the conflict.
Colorizing Black-and-White Images
Just as interesting as viewing a before-and-after image, is the process in which a photograph is transformed from black-and-white to color. The transformation process starts with research. In most cases, objects such as uniforms and accouterments are readily accessible, allowing an artist to take note of texture and color. Pinpointing the actual physical characteristics of a subject can be more challenging. Things like eye and hair color, skin tone, and facial complexion can be fairly subjective. Often times, an artist has to take cues from period descriptions of a person as they reconstruct an image. Still, there are occasions where old fashioned guesswork comes into play.
Once research is concluded, the artistic process begins. To illustrate the magical transformation from black-and-white to color, check out this warp speed tutorial produced by Mads Dahl Madsen, a Denmark based artist, as he transforms a rather dull portrait of Union General Joseph Hooker into a vivid depiction of the “colorful” general.
As amazing as this is, I’m not naïve to the fact that there will always be traditionalists who prefer to keep things as they were; in this case, black-and-white. An argument can be made that artists are tinkering with history and distorting our interpretation of it through colorized images. I tend to disagree with this position.
To me, it’s amazing how much color affects my emotional reaction to a time and place. A black-and-white image makes the subject feel so foreign, so far away. When the same image is presented in color, I find an immediate connection to the subject, whether it be a person or a place. It instantly reminds me of the connection I have to those who came before me – as they too, lived in color.
Before & After