Photo Coloring – Art or Vandalism?

Photo Coloring – Art or Vandalism?

Do you love seeing modern colorizations of old, vintage photos? Is photo coloring an enhancement that deepens your engagement with the previously black and white image? Do you discover details which might have been missed if not for the highlight offered by hues of yellow, red or blue?

Or perhaps you are a purist and believe that the colorization process compromises the integrity of the original. Do you feel that photo colorization represents a form of graffiti, vandalism which marks up and covers over the subtle effects uniquely achievable in the world of gray scale. Maybe you feel cheated of the opportunity to imagine for yourself the subject’s actual colors.

There is much room for debate about the merits of old photo coloring. In addition to viewpoints about the actual transformation of the image, there are questions about the collection value of colorizations. Is a photo colorization of a vintage photo in and of itself a collectible? Perhaps the treated historic image can only be regarded, at best, as a new work of art. We thought it would be interesting to pose these questions to an artist actually devoted to the colorization process. Perhaps we might gain some insight into how at least one individual values this work and how the colorizations themselves can be valued.

To this end, we contacted Mike Sadler, proprietor of Carney’s Photo Colourizing, Perth, Australia.  Mike and his wife have been engaged in the process of restoring and colorizing old family photos, mostly portrait photos, for well over 25 years. Mike was somewhat surprised about being contacted by a Springer Spaniel.  Nevertheless, he kindly agreed to respond to my several questions as follows:

Q: What got you interested in colorizing old black and white photographs?

A: It all started when we were given an original photograph of my wife’s great aunt taken in 1908 in sepia colour and which had been hand coloured probably by a local artist for the photo studio that had taken the photograph. It was quite common in that period to have photographs hand coloured albeit there was a substantial additional cost for such a service.

Q: What are your clients looking for in a colorized photo?

A: The main reason we have found is that clients want to see what their ancestors would look like when given colour. Some clients are able to provide hair/eye colour. Some clients have been able to provide apparel colours which we attempt to match as closely as possible. When clients have no colour selection we use our own colours using tell tale information that the original photograph provides.

Q: What kinds of reactions have you had from clients?

A: The reaction is usually one of awe and delight.

Q: What is your actual colorization process? Do you start from a high-resolution scan?

A: Yes! High resolution is the key to allow us to provide a worthwhile finished image. The best images come from studio photos taken with high resolution cameras of the day which can in many instances match today’s cameras. But many people that scan these photos possibly do not fully understand the process. They scan the photo at a minimum of 300 dpi but fail to adjust the original size. When scanning it is also important to select the actual physical size of the original.  Generally it is ideal to select a size somewhat larger than the original.  For example – a 7″x 5″ is best if the scan size is increased to 9″x7″, maintaining a resolution of not less than 300 dpi (even a little higher is fine). We always make sure the client understands what we need from them so that we can provide a quality result.

Q: Can you tell us something about the photographs you have collected over the years?

A: The images that have been sent to us for colourization have come from all around the world: from the United Kingdom, North and South America, the Middle East and the Far East. All are generally from the period prior to 1900 up to 1935, and though they come mainly from descendants of the subjects in the photos, we have colourised many where the person is unknown. We have also colourised images that have been bought recently from various outlets simply because the new owner wanted to see them in colour.

Q: Are colorized images of interest to collectors?

A: Indeed.  As mentioned in the previous answer, we have colourised for people that simply collect old photographs.

Q: Have you experienced any criticism over the years from people that feel strongly against the colourization of old photos?

A: Never any strong criticism as such. But certainly there have been comments showing people still like the old original sepia or black/white version. It seems to link them to the past more securely. In the end however they can have both the original and a colour version.

We are grateful to Mike for his thoughtful responses. The most compelling argument for the colorizations that comes out of our discussion is that a thoughtful and well executed treatment can give us a better idea about what people and places looked like. The advantage of the original black and white appears to be the stronger sense of historical connection which it engenders. Finally, it would appear that colorizations continue to be of interest in collector circles.

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