I’ve written before (generally negatively) about the practice of colourising old black and white photographs – I make a (possibly arbitrary) distinction between doing this in PhotoShop to make the photographs more palatable to a modern audience and some old photographic processes that were around before colour photography was practical and widely available.
Time recently published a web gallery of “30 of the Most Iconic and Influential Photos of All Time Colorised“the technique is so widely known now, I doubt too many people would be amazed – after all photographs have been coloured since the earliest days of the medium (though this is clearly evidence of a demand for photography to be more true to life). The technique of colourising black and white movies was justified that a modern, young audience wouldn’t watch a black and white film anymore than they would watch a silent one (or read subtitles). But proponents of the technique of colourising black and white still photographs argue that the monochrome practice makes the past seem less distant, so we are more able to empathise with what we are seeing.
I’d argue that we have a problem with empathy – but looking through Time’s “…Iconic and Influential Photos” did make me look anew at images that were so familiar as to have become almost invisible. A point in case was Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”– probably the most famous image of the Great Depression.
Here is the image in its original monochrome and the colourised version.
The Library of Congress describes the image as: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” It was taken in 1936 for the Farm Security Administration (a U.S. Federal government funded organisation, and shows Florence Owens Thompson (1903 to 1983) and some of her children. Much of the image’s strength stems from the viewer being able to connect with Thompson as another human being and read meaning in her expression, even if the meanings are sometimes contradictory (resilience, resignation, strength, exhaustion etc.) The question is, is the picture better colourised? Can we connect more with her if we think she is of now, rather than the past (she died over 30 years ago)? The empathy gap can’t be bridged by PhotoShop – There’s certainly a lack of empathy for today’s migrant mothers as we see their children washed up on beaches in full HD.
Today, Lange’s photograph will usually be encountered in its context of being a classic photograph in a book about photography or a photography exhibition – which was not what Lange was being paid by Uncle Sam to do. As the photographs were paid for by the Federal Government, they have been made available to the American tax payer (and people with an internet connection) through the Library of Congress. I’ve put the images here:
We can see Lange’s original shot (the one we know was cropped slightly) as well as look at a sequence of five photographs she took of the subject (apparently she shot a sixth picture that was not given to the Library of Congress (see their site for details). The photographs were taken on a 5×4 Graflex camera, the negatives were not numbered at the time, so it is not possible to know which order they were taken, but in the February 1960 issue of Popular Photography, Lange told the story of how she took it:
I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.
There is also a wealth of articles about the photograph putting it in a historical and cultural perspective. You can even download high resolution scans of the images and colourise them yourself 😉 ).