Effects of Colorization on Black & White Film and Photos

My archival visit resulted in photos from an 1893 world’s fair collection, but for our digital exhibit, we’ve decided to focus on a comparison of two technical schools that arose in Chicago in the early twentieth century- Lane Technical College Prep and Flower Tech. In the spirit of being productive, I’m going to focus this blog post around photographs related to Lane Tech.

Lane Technical College Prep High School is one of the oldest high schools in the city. Started as a technical training school in 1908, it has evolved significantly since then. Today, it is a selective enrollment magnet high school.  Here are a couple of photos of Lane that are accessible via the Explore Chicago Collections website:

Many early images related to Lane are black and white. If possible, I’d like to use Photoshop to color them. My intention is to add color in a realistic way. One of the risks I run in adding color to a black and white photograph is that it’ll turn out cartoon-like (I’m imagining Andy Warhol’s 1962 Marilyn Diptych). I’ve been considering colorization a lot recently after watching a popular Netflix series called World War II in HD Colour. The series recounts major people and events of WWII; using special digital colorization techniques in order to portray previously uncolored footage in color.


The effect the colorization has on the viewer is noticeable. Today, we’re accustomed to color film; it would be more jarring to us if a photo or film was in black and white. Black and white film is no longer the norm- for many people is a primary indicator that something is “from the past”. The coloring of this WII footage that we’ve seen in black and white for our entire lives is equally as jarring. Adding color takes away this obvious indicator of the divide between past and present. We know something is off; but it takes awhile to put a finger directly on what it is.

An obvious example of the effects of color in film is the 1939 Technicolor classic The Wizard of Oz. At the beginning of the film, the Kansas prairie is harshly monochromatic, featuring deadly cyclones and lacking in color and beauty. Most people that Dorothy encounters at the beginning of the film (Almira Gulch, especially) are hardened and unpleasant.  Oz, by contrast, is gorgeous, fantastical, and colored- featuring a marvelous emerald city, thriving fields of flowers, farmland, deep forests, and adventure. Most of its inhabitants, (in contrast to Kansas) are cheerful, helpful, and virtuous. The positive effects of the use of color here are nearly tangible.

Dorothy, entering Oz.

It would be incorrect to say that colorization doesn’t have negative effects, though. The technique has been criticized because it ruins the lighting and color values of black and white films. Filmmakers working with black & white or sepia use lighting very intentionally, and oftentimes, colorization obscures these lighting compositions. In 1988, there was quite the public outcry when Ted Turner announced that he intended to color Citizen Kane. Many stated that the somberness of the film would be compromised with colorization. The case for photos is similar. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were staunch opponents of colorization, claiming it was akin to vandalism. You can watch Part 1 of their four part series discussing film colorization here.

I don’t intend to destroy the integrity of any Lane Tech photos by coloring them, nor do I think that colorization would necessarily improve the photos. There are also copyrighting issues that I would have to explore in more depth before I were to actually publish any edits in public domain. Ideally, I just want to experiment and see what kind of effects colorization may have on the audience’s interpretation. Colorization might also open the doors to a conversation about the past and present. What constitutes the dividing line between recent past and distant past? Does adding color in any way make the past more relatable or accessible for those in the present, or does it add an unrealistic taint the past? Are these questions even relevant?


One thought on “Effects of Colorization on Black & White Film and Photos

  1. I enjoyed your thoughts on the colorization of black and white photographs and video. I think photographs and videos can serve both the purpose of drawing us into a topic or period of history as well as distancing us from it. Through this media we are able to see events, places, and people we might not otherwise be able to. However, we can also choose to see those events, places, and people as from another time because we are viewing a photograph or video and become removed from what we are seeing. While I enjoy the aesthetics of black and white footage from decades ago, colorization could be an important tool for reevaluating how we experience the past. The World War II documentary in color draws out details of old footage. Color doesn’t change what happens in a movie but it allows us to think about how and if we view black and white footage and photographs differently.


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