The past did not take place in black-and-white, but many of the technologies for documenting that past when it was present operated in that way. But in our age of never-ending marvels we can right the egregious errors of such out-moded systems. So it is that the colourisation of black-and-white actuality films and photographs has grown hugely over the past couple of years. From being a marginalised, rather gimmicky exercise in tarting up the monochrome past for the undiscriminating, colourisation has gone mainstream.
The tipping point came with Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which gained both popular and critical acclaim for how it brought colour back to black-and-white film original footage of the First World War in a form that audiences found emotionally and aesthetically valid. There have been recent colourised TV history series in the USA (America in Color), Australia (Australia in Colour) and the UK (Edwardian Britain in Colour). A book of colourised black-and-white photographs, The Colour of Time: A New History of the World, 1850-1960, has been a popular success.
I have argued against this trend, increasingly it seems as a solitary voice, though I know others share the worries. It is not colourisation itself that I object to – we can add colours to pictures if we wish, so long as we are honest about it. To my mind the results are fundamentally bogus, but if they have meaning for people then they have a function. My objections are two-fold. One, they pose a threat to the majority of our monochrome still and moving image archives, which may become doomed to invisibility because the public will only want to see that which is colourful. Two, they are a denial of history, and of thinking historically.
I’ve been pondeing how to take the argument forward, or whether just to abandon the battle. Then I saw some excitable newspaper articles about a free colourisation app, Colourise.sg, which is being used by many people, chiefly it seems to add colour to old family photographs. Created by the Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Division of the government of Singapore, the online tool invites you to upload a black-and-white image. You click on the colourising button, the app thinks about things for a few seconds, then lo and behold your image appears in somewhat otherworldly colour, with a before-and-after bar that you can drag across the image to show how black-and-white translates into colour. You can then download the results. The website does not retain a copy of your image. They are careful to point out that what has been created is not the historical reality:
The purpose of colourisation is to generate an image with colours that are plausible. It by no means guarantees that the colourised image is an accurate representation of the actual snapshot in time.
Nevertheless, it will be real enough for many. Colour makes things present, evidently.
Aha, I thought, I can do things with this. I wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in seeing my black-and-white family photos turned into something looking like a 1920s tinted postcard, but it presented an opportunity to be subversive. Firstly, I took recent colour photographs of mine, used basic imaging software to convert them into monochrome, and uploaded the results to Colourise.sg. The site duly produced its own peculiar interpretation of current colour, the results of which I have put in a Flickr album. The colour tends to be heavy on the greens, struggles with whites, and occasionally has the intriguing effect of converting the present into some hazy, intoxicating place in the indeterminate past.
Then I had another idea. When colourisation of films first appeared, back in the 1980s, it was all about adding colour to feature fil monochrome classics, such as It’s a Wonderful Life, in the hope of giving them a new commercial life. There were loud complaints about the vulgarity of the results and how they went against the filmmakers’ intentions. But what about modern black-and-white films? How would images from more recent feature films which have been made in black-and-white look when colourised? So I gathered together images from such films as Roma, Raging Bull, The Elephant Man, Ida, A Field in England, She’s Gotta Have It and Schindler’s List, and uploaded them to Colourise.sg, to see what I might see.
The results I find rather intriguing. Aside from the subversiveness of the exercise, there is an unreality about them which is peculiarly haunting – more so than if they had been actuality images. Of course the colour is variable, because the source material varies so. Modern black-and-white films are sometimes shot in black-and-white (e.g. Schindler’s List), but more frequently are filmed in colour and then post-processed. Moreover the images are a mixture of frame stills and publicity stills, so there is no real technical commonality between them.
Nevertheless, they all have that haunting quality. It’s a hyper-reality of some sort that frees them from the specifics of the time in which they were made, making them co-owners of some other time, one which is past but has no date. I’m particularly struck by Roma, at the top of this post, with its surreal colour balance and suggestion of statuary; A Field in England with its super-saturated immediacy; and The White Ribbon, where the sadness of the composition has been accentuated by the delicacy of the skin tones.
What’s the point of this exercise? Little, perhaps, except that it may demonstrate how artificial colour can be. The limitations of the Colourise.sg app are obvious enough to see. What is present is not colour in any naturalistic sense, but rather an idea of colour. But then all colour is the idea of itself, ultimately. There is no such thing as an absolute colour of something that all eyes see equally. Colours are constructs of our brains, our perceptions of which are refined further by cultural conditioning. Other animals see only some colours, or colours that we cannot see. There is no colour in objects of themselves, only in the light that they emit, which our brains construct, interpreting wavelengths using the photoreceptors located in our eyes. Colours enable us to make sense of the world, but they only exist because we are equipped to imagine them.
So where is the crime in colourisation, if colour is a mere construct of light, whose function is to reassure us? Well, nowhere, except that black-and-white, or monochrome, is colour too. Its unreality tell us that all colour reproduction is unreal, that our perception of it is particular to circumstance and technology, and never absolute.
To understand images, we need to appreciate their particularity. The point, perhaps, of the images here, is that colourisation is interesting where it reveals something of itself rather than the absurd pretence that it more accurately reflects the past. It should tell us that the past is lost, not that it can be miraculously recovered by replacing one colour construct (monochrome) with another.
So don’t look at colour reproduction because it is real. Look at it because it is unreal. It should make us think about how the world around us, present and past, is constructed, and how we govern our way through it. Its imperfections give us insight, if we are prepared to look.
All of the images in this post are available on the Flickr folder I have created for colourised images, plus other film still stills for which there was not room: Nebraska, Down by Law, Control, The Saddest Music in the World, Sin City, Frances Ha, Eraserhead… – what a tremendous number of visually entrancing black-and-white films we have made in these colourful times.