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