The controversial history of colorizing black-and-white photographs

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When the black-and-white photo was selected for Benetton’s ad campaign, executives made the decision to colorize it. This was done using a technique that was developed during the early years of photographic production called hand-coloring that required setting pigment down on the image and removing it with cotton around a toothpick.

The two issues that galvanize this strange campaign are its realism and its dignity.

Problems with colorization

Opposition to colorization often points to the artifice of the practice, but for the Benetton executives the problem with the Kirby photograph was not that it looked too real, but that its realism seemed incomplete.

The colorist, Ann Rhoney, described it as creating an “oil painting,” and the act of making a photograph more real by turning it into a painting appears to reverse longstanding assumptions about the art practices that are closest to reality.

However, Rhoney’s self-stated objective was not to make the photograph more real, but to both “capture and create Kirby’s dignity.” Kirby’s father supported the effort, while gay rights organizations called for a boycott of Benetton.

Colorization became routinely controversial in the 1980s when computers replaced hand colorists and studios began colorizing a host of classic films to appeal to larger audiences. Objections to the practice ranged from poor quality, the commercial forces behind the practice, and the omission of the qualities of black and white, to the implicit contempt for artists’ visions, a preference for the originals, and a disregard for history.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert famously called the practice “Hollywood’s New Vandalism.” Philosopher Yuriko Saito suggested that disagreements over the value of colorization often turn on an implicit belief in whether a work of art belongs to the artist or to the public.

In the context of historical images, the question becomes: to whom does history belong?

Photographs contribute to our development as moral and ethical subjects. They allow us to see the world from a point of view that does not belong to us, and alterations that make photography and film more familiar and relatable complicate a primary role we have given it as “a vehicle for overcoming our egocentricity.”

Photography and AI

The recent controversies around image colorization point to the similarities between photography and AI. Both are imagined to create representations of the world using the least amount of human intervention. Mechanical and robotic, they satisfy a human desire to interact with the world in a non-humanized way, or to see the world as it would look from outside ourselves, even though we know such images are mediated.

What is fascinating about new techniques of colorization is that they can be understood as photography seeing its own image through AI algorithms. DeOldify is photography taking a photograph of itself. The algorithm creates its own automatic representation of the photograph, which was our first attempt to see the world transparently.

With the increasing accessibility of tools for colorizing photographs and making other alterations, we are re-negotiating the very difficulties first brought about with photography. Our desire for and disagreements about authenticity, mechanization, knowledge, and dignity are reflected in these debates.

The algorithm has become a new way of capturing reality automatically, and it demands a heightened ethical engagement with photos. Controversies around colorization reflect our desire to destroy, repair, and dignify. We don’t yet know what a photograph can do, but we will continue to find out.


Roshaya Rodness is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Roshaya Rodness