Editing Historical Images: How Far Is Too Far?

It seems pretty evident from reading other’s blogs and from talking with other Clio students, that editing historical images may not be a task that falls within the historian’s comfort zone. After all, a photo is evidence too just as the pages of a nineteenth-century diary and we wouldn’t go inserting passages or deleting pages in poor sharecropper Joe’s journal, would we? But we might reprint its contents in a more legible font or digitize and tag its pages. So what then is an appropriate edit when working with historical images? Or is there such a thing?
I feel pretty comfortable using Photoshop’s spot-healing brush to “clean-up” images and I’m ok with tonal adjustments and contrast modifications to enhance older and deteriorating photos. But I am a little less at ease applying some of Photoshop’s other tools to historical images. Colorizing older photos, for example, gives me greater pause, not even because it can demand an arbitrary application of color (where colors can often carry meaning), but because color can change the feeling of a photo. Martin included in his blog last week a link to a site of various historical photos that had been “realistically colorized” to make the past “seem incredibly real” (a great compilation of images- thank you, Martin.) I don’t know if the application of color to a historical image can make it seem more “real”, but I might concede that, in some instances, the color did not necessarily change the feeling or the tone of the photo- maybe because these images were closer in time, maybe because the color was more subtle, or maybe because the image’s content was less austere. However, it might be possible that colorizing a historical photo can actually make that image seem less “real” or otherwise alter the tone of the original. The colorized version of the unemployed lumber worker and his wife, for example, seems to mask some of the somberness of the original image (particularly of the wife’s expression) and the photo seems more like a 21st century reenactment than an actual moment in time (even if staged). This isn’t to say that we should never apply image editing techniques to historical images, but only that we need to be aware of how our edits might alter the larger reality that is being portrayed in an image. Errol Morris writes that a photograph “brings time forward, but also compresses it, collapses it into one moment. It is the idea that the photograph captures that endures.” Photoshop enables us to manipulate historical images but we must be careful not to manipulate the idea behind the image.

Comments this week on Janelle’s blog and Becca’s blog

So That’s How It Works…Photoshop and Layers

Weird, it was like Tim Grey from Lynda.com read my blog last week and made a video to answer all of my questions…well, maybe not all of my questions, but his tutorial definitely helped to alleviate some of the confusion swelling around Photoshop’s layers. Unlike some of the other readings and tutorials that have relied on a basic follow-along/do-as-I-do teaching strategy, Grey’s tutorial included explanation of what each of the layer tools was actually doing to his example images (darkening pixels, copying pixels) and why we might choose certain tools over others (i.e. the dust filter versus the spot-healing tool or a hard-brush versus a soft brush.) I feel much more comfortable using an application when I understand what it is doing rather than just what it can do, and so for my new appreciation for Photoshop and layers, I thank Tim Grey.
The readings and tutorials this week emphasized something else about layers- a point so obvious yet so easy to disregard- namely, the importance of naming and distinguishing layers. This seems especially significant to the historian (or art historian) who is likely to be managing older and more damaged photos and images. As we saw from the example photos on Lynda.com, certain images will undoubtedly require more “fixing” than others. While some may need an adjustment of hue/ saturation, some a removal of dust and blemishes, and others a cropping out or duplication of pixels, some may require the application of all of these corrections. In such instances, renaming layers so that they make sense and so that they are easily identifiable when future edits are necessary becomes even more important. Somehow, I feel like the Layer 1, Layer 2 defaults may not be incredibly useful when I find myself at the end of my project and in need of an edit to a single image element. Wait, where was that again?

I forgot that we read “The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock” this week, which I loved. Luckily, April remembered, and included it in her post to which I commented.

Photoshop: Try, Try Again

So I’m not a fan of restaurants with 10 page menus- maybe it is because I have a short attention span, maybe it is because I don’t like to read at the dinner table or maybe it is because I am too hungry to either pay attention or scan 10 pages. So this is a little bit like what Photoshop feels like: though I will learn to love them in time, I am sure, right now, Photoshop’s options simply overwhelm.

In addition to an endless array of editing options, we learn this week that there are multiple ways to do just about anything in Photoshop. Just in Chapter 4 of the Non-Designer’s Photoshop Book, we learn that the Perspective Crop allows for lens correction but so too does the Transform tool; that we can scale and rotate in Transform or achieve the exact same results through the same functions in Free Transform. As I become more efficient in Photoshop, perhaps this knowing that I can choose from various tools to achieve the same results will be more comforting, but until I gain a better grasp of Photoshop essentials, too many options just confuse.

And speaking of Photoshop essentials…though Robin Williams postpones his discussion of Layers until Chapter 5 and a few hours lapse in the Lynda.com tutorial before Layers are explained, I am finding that an understanding of Layers is critical when working in Photoshop (perhaps second in importance only behind the History function- a feature that should be highlighted in the introduction of every tutorial.) And so far, I understand the reasons for working with layers- i.e. that layers help preserve original images, that various layers can interact to achieve certain effects, that they enable greater user control over images. However, I understand less about how to actually work with layers- i.e. when to create a new one, when to create a copy, when and how to link layers. I was hoping that tonight’s practicum would help to answer some of these questions, but, being that there will be no practicum, another week of reading, playing, and experimenting it is.

On another note, I spent a few hours this weekend editing my type assignment per the critiques I received in class. I cropped my header image, floated my image left so that the figure was looking into the text and not drawing eyes away from it (which meant I had to transfer my pull quote to the right so as to keep the page balanced.) I tried to separate the lyrics with a backslash so as to avoid the widowed and orphaned lines, but ultimately decided to keep the line breaks as the backslash insert did not resolve the issue of dangling words. I suppose I was then beginning to understand what Becca has been saying about coding being fun, because I spent time trying to improve my Home page as well as my About page. Of course, I can still recognize problems with each, but, my, what an improvement from that first day.

Comment on Sara’s blog.

“Poke Around…See What Happens”

So a Photoshop lesson was definitely needed. When Dr. Petrick told me last week that I needed to crop my header image, I could only shrug and say sadly to myself, “I did.” Having never experimented with Photoshop, I jumped right in last week, thinking that cropping and color editing would be the most basic and most self-explanatory of tasks, but the resulting folder of warped images of unpleasant hues proved that this was not to be the case.

I think my difficulties stemmed from the fact that I had underestimated Photoshop. Casual usage of the term (“that pic is totally Photoshopped” or “just Photoshop it out”) had somehow led me to believe that Photoshop was a simple and easy-to-use photo-editing application. (And, for those more experienced, perhaps it is.) But, after this introductory lesson, I don’t know if I would still use either of these adjectives to describe Photoshop- do I think it is pretty amazing in its potential? Definitely (what can’t you do with Photoshop?) but simple to use? Well, that will take some practice.

And I think that practice will entail a lot of distorted imagery and editing defects. Certainly, the readings this week helped to clarify just what it is that we can do with Photoshop and, certainly, the tutorials will be referenced again once we begin to engage Photoshop with more specific design objectives in mind.  But this week was another lesson in the art of trial and error. Though I was able to follow with relative success the step-by-step instructions in the Nondesigner’s handbook and the tutorials on Lynda.com, I didn’t really grasp what all of the dialog box percentages and sliding scales were actually doing.  So rather than following Justin Seely in applying Photoshop techniques the exact right way, I found it more useful to experiment with the wrong way, or to take the “what happens if I do this?” approach.  What happens if I get a little spot-healing brush happy? Well, a historic photograph loses some of its character. What happens if I extend the background on this theater audience photo? Well, the crowd becomes stretched and distorted. I was grateful for the texts and tutorials this week (for without them, I wouldn’t even know where to begin), but I think Photoshop may be another design skill that is best learned when we “poke around, click and prod, experiment…see what happens” (Williams, x).

Comment on Ben’s blog