Photo Interactive: The Civil War, Now in Living Color
How one author adds actual blues and grays to historic photographs
- By Ryan R. Reed
- Smithsonian.com, February 22, 2013
(Courtesy of Prints & Photographs, Library of Congress)
When you were colorizing the photos how did you know which colors to use? How much research went into finding Robert E. Lee’s hair color?
Things such as uniforms were pretty readily apparent and I could look at real uniforms preserved from that time. Things like women’s clothing I had to do research on to realize how vivid the color were at that time, what colors might be appropriate for that time and what colors could not be duplicated by dyes at the time. As far as physical characteristics of major people in the war, I did a huge amount of research online to try and find out accurate hair and eye colors. In many cases there were conflicting answers to things like that, which I then would do further research to try and get a consensus.
How did you actually go about applying color to the photographs and how long did it typically take to colorize one photo?
Some were quite simple. Portraits would probably be the most simple because there’s not a huge amount of detail on those. Eye color, hair color, things of that sort but nothing like wide vistas that have hundreds of people in them. The most I was ever able to achieve was about 3-and-a-half-portraits per day. The basic program that I used was Photoshop. What made this a really workable project to do is the incredible detail that these original photographs or duplicate photographs had been scanned at by Library of Congress.
Many of these photographs were stereoview cards so when they were looked at through a stereopticon they were actually 3-D, almost like our equivalent of View-Master images. An 8 x 10 negative would have two side-by-side images so each was approximately 4-to-4-and-a-half-inches wide. Believe it or not, Library of Congress has scanned those photos at up to 4,000 dots per inch (dpi) resolution. [At that high quality], it is then possible to move further and further in and colorize minutia that is just astounding. I developed a few little ways to do it that could minimize the process but each photo was different. The complexity of the colorizing process was directly proportionate to the complexity of the photograph itself.