A controversial story of the history behind colourizing black-and white photographs

Irish artist Matt Loughrey digitally colorized and added smiles to pictures of prisoners being tortured from Security Prison 21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which the Khmer Rouge used from 1975-79. The images have been published by the magazine Vice and caused anger via Twitter.

Vice removed the images that had been altered from their site and expressed its regrets for their actions to families of victims as well as the communities of Cambodia. In the meantime, the Toronto Star’s Heather Mallick described them as ” thoughtless, ahistorical and self-congratulatory” and declared that we should stop believing in photography.

AI colorization is the use of digital algorithms in order to change the colors of photographs in black-and-white through the “informed guess” based on the greyscale root.

Data researcher Samuel Goree tested DeOldify, which is an AI colorization application that converts an image in greyscale to Alfred T. Palmer’s 1943 photo using an instrument in Vultee Nashville. The result was an image where the skin tone of the black female model was lighter.

These kinds of interventions aren’t uncommon in the past of photography manipulation such as the Cottingley Fairies photographs that were taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in 1917 are a classic illustration. Alongside sophisticated online tools such as deepfakes (where an individual in a photo or video is substituted with an alternative) the use of algorithms to alter images has raised questions regarding photographic authenticity in today’s age of digital.

As a researcher in the visual arts and cinema, I am interested in examining the beliefs that drive debates like this by looking through the background of image manipulation. The application of colorization to produce historical revisionism and synthetic skin tones is a concern, but it does not make the first appearance that the use of color has provoked controversy.

Colors from the Benetton controversy

in 1992, fashion brand United Colors of Benetton sparked anger after it reused a photo in color from David Kirby, who had just passed away due to AIDS-related complications as well as his family members for its advertising campaign.

“The face of AIDS” was the title given to the image that appeared in the famous spread of the magazine LIFE. Images like this were intended to, at least in part, to inspire empathy and a sense of belonging to sufferers who were the worst stigmatized illnesses in the world.

When the black-and-white photo was chosen to be used in the advertising campaign, the company’s executives took the decision to colorize the image. This was accomplished with a method created in the early days of photography known as hand-coloring, which involved setting the pigment on the image before taking it off using cotton and a toothpick.

Two issues that drive this strange campaign are authenticity and its respectability.

Colorization issues

Opposition to colorization is often a reference to the absurdity of the process; however, for the Benetton executives, the issue with the Kirby photo was not that it appeared more real than it did; rather, the realism was lacking.

The colorist, Ann Rhoney, described the process as the idea of an “oil painting,” and the process of making a picture appear more authentic by transforming it into a work of art seems to rewrite long-standing beliefs about the artistic practices that are most realistic.

But, the self-described goal of Rhoney is not to make the image more genuine but rather to “capture and create Kirby’s dignity.” Kirby’s father was supportive of the cause, and gay rights groups have called for the rejection of Benetton.

Marina Amaral, a Photoshop colorist working to colorize registration images of Auschwitz in the project faces of Auschwitz, says her work aids in bringing back those who were killed’s ” dignity and humanity,” while Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture claimed that Loughrey’s photos affected ” the dignity of the victims.”

Disagreements on dignity usually be similar to those regarding photography and colorization. For certain people, dignity is intrinsic to the original. For others, it is something you can add.

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