The controversy surrounding colourizing black and white photos

AI colorization is the process of using digital algorithms to replace colors in a black-and-white photograph. This is done by making an informed guess based on’s greyscale roots.

Data scientist Samuel Goree used DeOldify to colorize a grayscale version of Alfred T. Palmer’s 1943 photograph Of a hand drill in Vultee Nashville. The result was an image where the skin tone of the black female subject appeared lighter.

These interventions are not the first in the history of photo manipulation. The Cottingley Fairies photos by Elsie Wright & Frances Griffiths, taken in 1917, are prime examples. The use of algorithms in altering photographs, along with sophisticated internet tools such as deepfakes, has sparked renewed concern about the authenticity and integrity of photography in the digital age.

In my role as a researcher in film and visual cultures, I’m interested in understanding the convictions that are behind these controversies by looking back at the history of image editing. It is disturbing that colorization can be used to create a revisionist history of atrocities and synthetic skin tones. However, this is not the first time colorization caused controversy.

Colors of Benetton: A Controversy

United Colors of Benetton, a clothing brand, caused outrage in 1992 when it repurposed a colorized photograph of David Kirby for its advertisement campaign. Kirby had just died of AIDS-related complications.

The photo that appeared in the iconic LIFE magazine was called “The Face of AIDS.”” These photos are intended to be relatable and sympathetic towards those suffering from the most stigmatized disease.

Executives decided to colorize the photo when it was chosen for Benetton’s ad campaign. The technique used was called hand-coloring, which was invented in the early days of photography. It involved putting pigment on the photo and then removing it using cotton wrapped around a toothpick.

This strange campaign is characterized by its realism and dignity.

Colourization problems

The practice of colorizing is often criticized for its artificiality, but the Benetton executives felt that the Kirby photo was flawed because it did not appear to be realistic enough.

Ann Rhoney described it as “creating an oil painting.” The act of turning a photo into a painting is reversing long-held assumptions about art practices closest to reality.

Rhoney, however, stated that his goal was not to make it more realistic but to “capture and create Kirby’s dignity.”” Kirby’s father backed the effort, while gay rights groups called for a Benetton boycott.

Marina Amaral is a Photoshop colorist who works to colorize Auschwitz registration photos for The Faces of Auschwitz. She claims that her work restores the victims’ “humanity and dignity,”” while the Cambodian culture ministry claimed Loughrey’s images affect “victims’ dignity.”

The debates about dignity are similar to those over photography and colorization. For some, dignity is an inherent part of the original; for others, it is something that you can add.

Photo of Rev. E. J. Peck leading a service in the open air. DeOldify has been used to colorize the image on the right. (McGill Library/Unsplash, DeOldify)

There are many examples. Peter Jackson’s choice to colorize historical footage from the First World War in his 2018 film They Shall Not Grow Old was criticized by historian Luke McKernan, who said that it made “the past seem more distant” because “it rejected what is true about it.” Neural Love also faced criticism for its “upscaling of historical footage with neural networks and algorithms.””

In the 1980s, colorization became a hotly debated topic when computer colorists replaced hand colorists. Studios began colorizing classic films in order to reach broader audiences. The practice was criticized for its poor quality, commercial motives behind it, and the omission of black and white. Other objections included the disregard for the artists’ visions as well as the lack of respect for history.

Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and others have called this practice “Hollywood’s New Vandalism.” The philosopher Yuriko Saito has suggested that the disagreements about the value of colorization are often based on the implicit belief of whether an artwork belongs to the artist or the public.

The question that arises in the context of historical images is: To whom does history belong?

The photographs we take help us to develop as moral and ethical beings. Photographs allow us to view the world from a different point of perspective. The changes that have been made to make photography and films more relatable and familiar complicate a primary role that we have given them as “an instrument for overcoming our egocentricity .”

Photographic AI

Recent controversies surrounding image colorization have highlighted the similarities between AI and photography. Both aim to represent the world with the least human involvement. They are mechanical and robotic. They satisfy the human desire to interact in a non-humanized manner with the world or see the world from the outside, despite the fact that we know these images are.

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