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Colouring historic black & white photographs: A pragmatic collections approach.

August 9, 2018

During my career at the Imperial War Museum photograph collection the question of colourising images was an all to frequent topic. Many publishing projects using modern day coloured black and white photographs were proposed and as a very general rule these were declined. Even more so with eve of the centenary of the First world war then approaching.

Indeed, it was part of the museums terms and condition no such colourisation would take place. I fully understand the curatorial concerns regarding the alteration of an image and by default its context. However hard we would try in this generation not to, we would be making subjective changes to the image and influencing those who follow.

But I fully accept the well thought out and positive arguments for allowing the alteration of historic images to make the more accessible. Especially to generations of viewers who have only ever known colour images.

This dilemma is the best example of the very fine balancing act museums and collections face in managing a collection of historical images with integrity and yet keeping up with an ever-changing means of accessing material. Which so often can make the content more accessible to the very audiences’ museums a gallery wishes to reach.

Firstly, let me put a pin in the argument “Do not allow any change at all”, with the best will in the world we will never be able to stop the application of colour to black and white photographs. A museum or collection trying too would waste valuable time and resources arguing, possible in the courts about copyright infringements or use without permission. Frankly I do not believe it would be worth it.

Secondly allowing images to be coloured does change the images context and story even with the very best of research and intentions. Using the Imperial War museums image collection as an example. Not all mud is brown, not all Khaki is the same shade not all camouflage is green.

What ever claims are made for the techniques or technology in colourising images especially around accuracy. The fundamental fact will remain it will never be 100% accurate.

But this is not a new problem even at the time many of these photographs were taken, photographers could hand tint photographic prints to bring them alive and make them more realistic! Would a curator turn away a hand tinted photograph from a collection or accept its history has part of the photographs story.

But there is a pragmatic approach that all museums and collections can follow to retain the essence of the image and allows theses new hybrid images to be seen and accessed to encourage interest. I will also make a daring assertion it will raise revenue for the museum and help prevent any later misinterpretation.

Allow the colourisation of historic images in your collection, derive revenue from the new images by licencing or sales of the new images but clearly control the credit and related meta data through contract. The attribution for such images must all was state the date of the colourisation.

By example I would give “image ABC 001 1916: Artistic interpretation 2014” followed by the name of the interpreter’s. This would give a clear link for this new surrogate image to the original unchanged image in the collection with its content and context intact for serious research. It also gives the viewer a clear understanding what they are seeing has been changed and when.

Crucially it makes it clear that the added colour, whatever the hue or temperature is was an artist interpretation of its time. No doubt future generations will want a re-interpretation of the images we currently hold, and we will have least given them the best a start.

Credit: wyrdlight / Alamy Stock Photo

Caption: Living historian: Manchester Regiment in British pattern service dress 1908 webbing, Lee Enfield rifle & bayonet - colour on BW Date taken: 2014