I’ll admit it. I was the kid who always protested when my parents suggested watching a show that was in black and white, and I know I’m not the only one. When given the choice of watching a show in color or in black and white, almost everybody will choose. Why? Because it’s more realistic and relatable. For the same reasons, many photographs of the Civil War were colorized both then and now.
Photographs became increasingly popular during the Civil War and were no longer exclusive to the big shots, so many soldiers had their photographs taken for family members. To meet the need, there were an estimated five thousand photographers in the business.
In 1850 Reverend Levi L. Hill was of the first to claim that he could add natural colors to daguerreotypes, but for over five years he kept his process a secret. In the meantime, others were trying to catch onto this trend. Colorizing, though, is a difficult process to master. During the Civil War, color was added to sepia-toned and black and white images to bring them to life. The most common method for applying color to daguerreotypes was with a finely pointed camel-hair brush. One would use this brush to apply a dry powdered pigment to the surface of the photo, and then it would be coated with a solution of isinglass which made a thin, transparent sheet. Photos were hand-tinted, and therefore the process took much time. Results were often uneven, and the addition of colors could often hide the photo’s details, so the most transparent colors were most preferable.
Dyes, watercolors, oils, and pastels were all used to make the photos more realistic, though many claim they did the opposite. For example, the Photographic Art Journal said daguerreian artists “must in their own minds condemn it, as the know that they are working to please the bad tastes of the community and not their own.” Despite criticism, many artists had much success in employing this technique.
Photographer Alexander Gardner, employee of the renowned Matthew Brady, produced photos of the dead soldiers at Antietam, revealing some of the first images of Americans killed during a war. As if his images of bloating corpses were not disturbing enough, he had tinting artists apply color to the photos. He instructed his tinting artist to apply red paint to represent blood on the bodies of dead soldiers, in one instance dripping from the mouth of a Confederate on Hagerstown Pike. However, the reliability of Gardner’s practices were later questioned when the original negatives were studied by technicians at the Library of Congress, who found no evidence of bloodstains on the photo of the Confederate soldier.
Is the process of colorizing therefore inherently suspect? It is understandable that a photographer cannot remember every detail of the scene where he took a photo, but does his presence at the scene give him the authority to imagine the details and determine what the uncolored photo is missing?
John Guntzelman, artist and author of The Civil War in Color, has wrestled with this question and over the years has compiled Civil War photos and colorized them with the help of extensive research. Without any memory of what the scenes looked like–which photographers such as Gardner and Brady had– Guntzelman relies on research to guide him in his coloring. He visited sutlers at reenactments, for they are known for being strict about authenticity, and historical sites to discover the colors that are likely hidden behind the black and white or sepia photos. His efforts align with the popular modern movement to colorize photos from history.
These newly colorized photos have flooded Civil War fan pages on Facebook, and this fad has stretched beyond America. For example, Jordan Lloyd from Britain and Mads Madsen from Denmark have been working together to colorize Civil War photos. Madsen, only 19 years old, explained, “I love the fact that you can see veins in the eyes of humans born over 200 years ago as clear as day.” TIME Magazine even hired a photo editor, Sanna Dullaway from Sweden, to colorize some of the most iconic Civil War photos.
While colorizing photos appears to be a new trend, the process was widely used during the Civil War for the same reasons it is today: to increase understanding.
It is undeniable that as time goes by we not only become more distanced from the past in years but in memory and understanding as well. However, photographs allow us to see our common humanity. Though the Civil War occurred over 150 years ago in circumstances incomprehensible to most Americans, photos allow us to get a glimpse of what life was like at one exact moment in time. Photos in black and white or sepia have great power, but even greater power lies in colored photos, for they allow the viewer to better comprehend the reality that the photo captured and make the gap between the past and the present less overwhelming.