Color brings new per­spec­tive to clas­sic pho­tos like Kubrick’s, Lange’s

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - By Christo­pher Bor­relli cbor­relli@chicagotri­ Twit­ter @bor­relli

This pic­ture of the Chicago Theatre on a rainy State Street was shot by Stan­ley Kubrick. He was 21 at the time, a young staff pho­tog­ra­pher for Look magazine, the some­what stodgier an­swer to Life magazine. It was 1949, and Kubrick was still decades away from di­rect­ing “Dr. Strangelov­e,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Spar­ta­cus,” “The Shin­ing.” He made a series of im­ages pub­lished as “Chicago — City of Ex­tremes,” with an es­say by Chicago SunTimes colum­nist Irv Kupcinet. His pic­tures, of wrestling matches and ex­pen­sive din­ners at the Pump Room, school­child­ren and com­modi­ties traders, meat pack­ers and over­crowded ten­e­ments, were stark, very high-con­trast black-and-whites.

But other than the pho­tog­ra­pher, the the­ater and that post­war sleek­ness, not much about this Chicago Theatre im­age proved es­pe­cially en­dur­ing — “John Loves Mary,” the stage show play­ing at the time, is bet­ter re­mem­bered as a for­get­table Ron­ald Rea­gan movie, and not even Look magazine, which folded in 1971, re­tains the ro­mance of Life. Still, that color.

That’s re­cent. It was added painstak­ingly, after con­sid­er­able re­search, by Jor­dan Lloyd, a pro­fes­sional im­age col­orizer from Lon­don. He said in an email that, to work the color into Kubrick’s pic­ture, to ap­prox­i­mate a 1949 Loop scene as closely as pos­si­ble, ’40s Pon­ti­acs and Chevro­lets were stud­ied, com­par­a­tive im­ages of the the­ater at the time were ex­am­ined, even the col­ors in­side of each wet re­flec­tion re­quired a care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of the light sources. All of which was “chal­leng­ing, be­cause the light­ing con­di­tions and sub­ject mat­ter are slightly overblown, clipped and out of fo­cus, par­tic­u­larly on the street.”

Kubrick was a bet­ter film­maker.

The photo, how­ever, opens “His­tory as They Saw It: Iconic Mo­ments from the Past in Color,” a fas­ci­nat­ing new book that sounds, frankly, like a bad idea: a com­pi­la­tion of vin­tage black-and­whites, some clas­sic, many less so — only col­orized. Golden Gate Bridge con­struc­tion in 1934, Sit­ting Bull and Buf­falo Bill in 1885, the 1865 hang­ing of Lin­coln as­sas­si­na­tion con­spir­a­tors, even Hon­est Abe him­self in 1846 — all of it in color, as if dis­cov­ered in an alt-uni­verse where Ko­dachrome was in­vented in the 19th cen­tury.

It was the dream of Wolf­gang Wild, an Ox­ford, Eng­land-based art cu­ra­tor who founded the blog Retro­naut, which col­lects un­usual, lit­tle-seen im­ages from the past to re­frame fa­mil­iar mo­ments from his­tory. He told me: “I had never had an aes­thetic is­sue with the con­cept of col­oriza­tion — it dates back to the in­ven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy — but it has only been re­cently that artists have been able to ex­e­cute it con­vinc­ingly.” He said that “Jor­dan’s work was the first I had seen that achieved that de­gree of verisimil­i­tude.”

A typ­i­cal day for Lloyd is col­oriz­ing pri­vate and com­mer­cial com­mis­sions. A client wants a World War I photo of his great­great-grand­fa­ther col­orized — Lloyd teases out de­tails about the im­age from rel­a­tives, from re­search, then aims to color it as close to re­al­ity as pos­si­ble. He said it’s a smat­ter­ing of de­tec­tive work, and a lot of his­tory, with the goal of cap­tur­ing what the pho­tog­ra­pher saw through the viewfinder when the im­age was taken.

“It’s help­ful to know the ex­act lo­ca­tion and di­rec­tion the pho­to­graph was taken in, which helps me de­ter­mine a time of day. Are the shad­ows sharp or soft? That helps me de­ter­mine if it’s a sunny day or it’s over­cast, which have very dif­fer­ent looks. The date also helps — it gives me a (time frame) to be­gin lo­cat­ing ob­jects and cloth­ing styles. I’ll look at ad­ver­tis­ing, street sig­nage and just about ev­ery de­tail to help me be­gin hunt­ing the cor­rect — or at least, authen­tic — color ref­er­ences.” He trawls auc­tion sites, con­tacts food and bev­er­age man­u­fac­tur­ers and in­ter­views ex­perts on so­cio-ethno­graphic wardrobes.

What­ever helps.

The re­sult, in “His­tory as They Saw It,” is at turns rev­e­la­tory, strik­ing and dis­ori­ent­ing. Dorothea Lange’s can­on­ized por­trait of a De­pres­sion-era mother breast­feed­ing her child — only now her dress is red checker­board and the child has knit­ted green slip­pers. Por­traits of im­mi­grants at El­lis Is­land, ini­tially pub­lished in Na­tional Ge­o­graphic in 1907 — only the yel­lowed hues and drab cloth­ing of the orig­i­nals are gone, re­placed with ocean blue smocks, dresses kept im­pec­ca­bly white, teal neck­laces.

And yet, why do it?

For much of its his­tory, blackand-white pho­tog­ra­phy was not solely a stylis­tic con­ven­tion or fi­nan­cial con­sid­er­a­tion, but an aes­thetic choice. Us­ing blackand-white stock was to in­ter­pret. It was a way of look­ing at the world. Part of the rea­son you rarely hear peo­ple com­plain­ing any­more about the col­oriz­ing of old Hol­ly­wood films — which reached a fevered peak in the mid-’80s when Ted Turner crowed that as owner of a large num­ber of black-and white clas­sics, he would do what he wanted with them — is be­cause there are fewer col­orized movies broad­cast to­day. Col­orized work has al­ways looked a lit­tle dis­tract­ing. Some­thing al­ways felt wrong. Lloyd’s work car­ries a whiff of that brazen­ness — he is, in a way, paint­ing his own ideas on the work of oth­ers.

One can only guess how many times the fa­mously con­trol­ling Kubrick has rolled in his grave.

Lloyd said that un­ease isn’t en­tirely gone. He said some view­ers “find my im­ages un­com­fort­able. They have to dou­blecheck and make sure they’re look­ing at a col­orized im­age, rather than the orig­i­nal.” On the other hand, he re­gards that as a com­pli­ment.

Cer­tainly, his heart is in the right place.

The best known and widely re­viled uses of col­oriza­tion were of­ten jus­ti­fied on the grounds of mar­ketabil­ity, on the as­sump­tion that peo­ple now can’t re­late to im­ages of peo­ple then. But Wild said that col­oriza­tion in the right, thought­ful hands of­fers a les­son: “The past is not in­her­ently dif­fer­ent from the present.” He said “color col­lapses time, re­moves the bar­rier be­tween past and present, like pol­ish re­mov­ing tar­nish from a ring.” Asked if he learned more about the past by see­ing it in color, he pointed to an im­age in the book, of a Philadel­phia man in 1839. It’s the world’s first selfie, a some­what dark, faded self-por­trait. But there’s a cran­berry coat, a bit of flush in his cheeks — the man looks con­fi­dent, skep­ti­cal and en­tirely con­tem­po­rary. Wild said that pic­ture, with color, “showed me that col­orists are not adding color to black-and-white re­al­ity. They’re re­mov­ing a blackand-white fil­ter from our per­cep­tion of the past.”


A col­orized take on Stan­ley Kubrick's 1949 im­age of North State Street ap­pears in the book “His­tory as They Saw It.”


This 1936 pho­to­graph of Flo­rence Thomp­son, “Mi­grant Mother,” be­came a sym­bol of the Great De­pres­sion.

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