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

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4 responses to “Editing Historical Images: How Far Is Too Far?

  1. Couldn’t agree more with your thoughts. The more we play with Photoshop, the more uncomfortable I become with significantly changing older pictures. While I can clearly see how we want to “improve” pictures that have been damaged, I also question what kind of an authority I am to be “fixing” this picture. I liked your comparison to removing parts of “sharecropper Joe’s journal”. I think another way of looking at it is like translating great works of literature. A translation is not an exact science, which is why different translations can say different things. Just like we understand that something is literally “lost in translation”, we need to understand what we “lose” when we alter images in Photoshop – and be careful how we do it.

  2. Pingback: Photoshop – Try, try again | Beth's Clio II Blog

  3. Pingback: Adding Color to History – The Use of Photoshop in Historical Images | Digital History Blog

  4. Pingback: Adding Color to History – The Use of Photoshop on Historical Images | Digital History Blog

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