The art of colorizing black and white photographs of the past is undergoing an ethics review

As Nhem En tells it, the six photographers of Tuol Sleng didn’t even have time to take a break from photographing victims to eat. “It was a hard labor for us,” he told a Cambodian tribunal in 2016, according to the edited transcript of his testimony. “Negatives or film rolls were in piles up to our knees.” Even so, he said, only a few thousand of the people who were tortured and killed in the Khmer Rouge jail, formerly a school, were photographed. 

Today, some of those images are at the center of a scandal shaking the world of colorizing, the practice of digitally editing images originally taken in black-and-white to make them look as though they were taken in color. In early April, Vice published a selection of images of Tuol Sleng victims that had been edited by Irish colorizer Matt Loughrey. Loughrey, who runs My Colorful Past, not only added color to the black-and-white images but also altered the facial expressions of some of the people photographed, changing their expressions into smiles. 

The images were quickly condemned by the Cambodian government and by others. Vice unpublished the interview and replaced it with an editorial apology. Loughrey’s web presence, including his popular Instagram account, went dark. And his colleagues started to grapple with what it means to take the past into their hands. 

Colorizing, like all history-making, is fundamentally a work of interpretation. Search for colorized versions of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century and a common object of practice for colorizers, and the issue quickly emerges. Was 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson, the image’s central figure, wearing a green jacket, or a brown, or even a pink one? Was her shirt yellow, red, or blue? What tone did her skin take on in the light? 

Jordan Lloyd, a colorizer who prefers the term “visual historian,” likens the process of colorizing a photo to “assembling a jigsaw puzzle.” But he stresses that each piece laid into that puzzle is the product of choice, not shape. Each choice—the color of an outfit, or the tone of someone’s skin, or whether a smear on the wall is blood or dirt, is at best the product of careful historical research and at worst the product of imagination.  

Marion S. Trikosko—Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. At right: Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd

Altered photographs can seem real in a way that written interpretations of history cannot—so real, in fact, that they can supersede the original. For that reason, many colorizers prefer to display their images alongside the black-and-white originals. 

But as anyone who makes art in the digital age knows, it’s nearly impossible to control how it’s disseminated. Once the colorized images are out there, it’s easy to take them out of context. 

“Hopefully if you see my images next to genuine color photographs, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” Lloyd says. 

“Photography has always been a medium that has attracted tinkerers,” says Nadya Bair, a historian of photography at Hamilton College who is currently working on a project about the history of mug shots and police photography. 

Bair sees the work of colorizers as part of this legacy. The practice of hand-painting and dyeing photographs dates back to some of the earliest daguerreotypes and stretches well into the 20th century, she notes.

The development of digital photography and widespread access to photo editing software completely transformed the craft of photography, and the same is true for colorizing. But colorizing didn’t gain traction in the public consciousness until the 2010s, says Lloyd. Unlike the work of past colorizers, that interest didn’t center around modern black-and-white photographs: It was about bringing color to the past.  

The Khmer Rouge victims are far from the first vulnerable people to be colorized. Enslaved people, Dust Bowl migrants, and children injured in war have all been edited into living color, to name just a few. Individual colorizers make their own choices about what it’s okay to work on and what is outside the realm of their comfort.  

“I would never touch images of victims of genocide,” Lloyd says. But he has worked with sensitive material: Last year, he colorized a series of images of the civil rights movement for Unsplash, a leading photography website that shares free images for certain kinds of reuse. Those images are also posted on the Library of Congress’s website.   

Colorized images of Auschwitz prisoners went viral in 2018 after Brazilian colorizer Marina Amaral shared the image of a Polish girl named Czesława Kwoka, helping to raise the profile of the medium and prompting the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum to launch a new project focused on colorizing in collaboration with Amaral. 

“When we today look at an old picture that is colorized, it brings it back to life,” Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor said as part of the project. It makes it easier to use as a teaching aid, she said, because it has more vitality. 

The project raised eyebrows, but a central justification for the colorization of the inmate photographs was that there was no artistic intent behind them—just the brutal documentation of the Nazi regime. 

Look a little deeper, however, and the truth becomes more complex. For starters, says veteran photographer Jim Friedman, even “surveillance photography” like driver’s licenses and mug shots has an “aesthetic element” that is tied to its medium. 

And while they might all seem to be exactly the same, the person behind the camera is an essential part of each image, he says. We know who took the photographs of Kwoka: His name was Wilhelm Brasse, and he was a trained portrait photographer who was forced by the Nazis to take pictures of thousands of his fellow Auschwitz inmates.   

“In my opinion, Wilhelm Brasse made an emotional connection to [Kwoka],” Friedman says. 

He has an unusual perspective on the question of color and atrocities: In the early 1980s, his project 12 Nazi Concentration Camps was the first major artistic attempt to photograph the camps in color, rather than in black-and-white, and to show their modern context. At the time, his actions were almost a taboo.

But there’s a big difference between taking photographs of atrocity in color and adding color to historical photographs of atrocity, Friedman says. Doing the latter “unequivocally” distorts the originals, he says. “Does it violate them? Sometimes.”

In some ways, colorizing’s rise in popularity during the 2010s mirrors the true-crime renaissance. Both are about reinterpreting past events through a new popular lens, and both are ripe for sensationalizing. Just as true-crime producers say their work brings humanity to tragedy and exposes wrongs, a common claim among colorizers is that their work can make it easier to connect with the past

“I think that’s a way to rationalize, maybe elevate, a practice that is, in a way, a little gimmicky,” says Bair. Color is highly subjective, she says, provoking emotional responses that can completely rewrite how an image is seen. Color photographers know this and shoot accordingly. 

When Lloyd first became interested in colorizing around 2012, he found a community of people online doing it as a hobby. In online groups such as the 615,000 member-strong r/ColorizedHistory, of which Lloyd is now a moderator, users ranging from novice hobbyists to experts practice their techniques on a huge range of subjects. 

Although their focuses are different, these artists share some commonalities: They are largely self-taught; many came to this kind of work in the past decade; and many start charging for their services soon after entering the art. 

The path from colorizing as a hobby to colorizing as a job isn’t clear, and there’s no form of accreditation or certification. Anybody who can make images look good can start charging for their services. And sharing pictures on social media acts as its own advertising: Colorized images, often displayed without the black-and-white original, are so ubiquitous on social media that they spawned an in-joke.

By 2015, Lloyd had opened his full-time business, Dynamichrome. He’s colorized everything from family photographs to images from corporate archives. He’s far from alone: Although the industry is small, it includes people who focus on colorizing a period or a particular kind of image as well as those who work more broadly. A number work directly with museums or other historical institutions eager to garner a new audience for their holdings. 

Even before the recent dustup, colorizing was an industry in flux as bigger tech players moved in, taking advantage of the popularity of colorized images. Image editing software can also colorize using artificial intelligence trained with photographs from different periods. Adobe Photoshop recently added a “Colorize” neural filter that does just that, but the consumer looking to add color to old family photos has options: a small yet diverse industry of apps and downloadable programs that charge a monthly subscription fee or a fee to purchase.   

The rise of ever-more-skillful A.I. colorizing has eaten into professional colorizers’ business, says Lloyd—especially since MyHeritage, a popular family history website, integrated a colorizing A.I. into its offerings. Users at any tier can colorize up to 10 photos for free, while only those with a Complete subscription—$299/year–can colorize an unlimited number and remove the MyHeritage watermark. The website, which has more than 62 million users around the globe according to its own numbers, was recently purchased from an Israeli venture capital firm for $600 million by U.S.-based Francisco Partners. 

Speaking to the New York Times, survivors of the Khmer Rouge said the images, which are held by the National Cambodian Heritage and Killing Fields Museum and were used by Loughrey without permission, shouldn’t have been colorized at all. “The colors do not add humanity to these faces,” said survivor Theary Seng. “Their humanity is already captured and expressed in their haunting eyes, listless resignation, defiant looks.” 

In an interview published with the images of Cambodian victims, Loughrey talked at length about why some people in the images were smiling—without disclosing that he’d altered the images. Some of his colorizing choices have also come under question

This isn’t even the first time Vice published Loughrey’s colorized and otherwise manipulated images. In March, the website published 1920s mug shots of Australian women with similar edits to the Khmer Rouge images. The women, dour in the original photos, are smiling in the colorized ones. In the interview published with those images, which is still posted on Vice’s website at the time of publication, he opens with the line, “Faces tell stories, it’s as simple as that.”  

On the surface, this might seem like a small conflict. After all, photo manipulation isn’t new, and neither are unscrupulous photo editors. But how to deal with colorizing is a microcosm of a much bigger set of concerns about how we deal with the technology of images generally.  

“I feel there is definitely an opportunity now to try and strengthen and legitimize the future of the profession,” Lloyd says. The Colorizer’s Code of Conduct, an initiative that he began after last month’s incident, states explicitly that signatories (of which there are 74 so far) will respect original images, place their work in context, and “focus on the public good.” 

But while professional colorizers might be having a reckoning that will result in change, the art they pioneered is now in the hands of tech companies. Using autocolorizing software like what MyHeritage offers will give you an image in seconds, says Lloyd. “But the result is very different.” 

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