The Civil War, Now in Living Color | U.S. History | Smithsonian
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(Ryan Reed)

The Civil War, Now in Living Color

How one author adds actual blues and grays to historic photographs

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The photographs taken by masters such as Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner have done much for the public’s perception of the Civil War. But all of their work is in black and white. The battlefield of Gettysburg is remembered as a shade of grey and the soldiers as ghostly daguerreotype images. Photography was in its infancy during the time and colorizing photographs was rare and often lacked the detail of modern imagery.

John C. Guntzelman is changing that; he’s created an accurate colorized portrayal of the Civil War. In The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Reenactment of the War Between the States, Guntzeman tediously colorized hundreds of photos covering every aspect of the war.

Why did you choose to colorize Civil War photos as opposed to photos from another era?

The idea for this book came up when my wife and I were on vacation in Maui. This was back very late in 2007 and she was reading a book about the Civil War. We were both aware the Civil War sesquicentennial was on the horizon and somehow the idea came about to gather photographs dealing with the Civil War and colorize those.

Talk about the application of photographs during the Civil War? What was the process?

They used various media to do it. Everything from ink to pastels to color crayons, anything that would impart some level of color to it. Usually the medium that was the most transparent [like watercolor] was the most effective, because they would not allow the detail of the black-and-white photos underneath to actually show through.

From very early on, there was always an aim to try and colorize photographs to make them more real. The only option was to do some sort of hand colorizing. If you look at some of these old photos many of them are not very good but there are a few of them that are absolutely rather remarkable. When you realize the relatively small palette that these people had to deal with and the fact they had to do this all by hand it must have been an absolutely strenuous task to undertake at that time.

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.

Why is there an absence of blood in the colorized photos? Is that something you chose to leave out?

If you look at the original photographs there is no indication of blood or it is very minimal. Obviously it’s a black-and-white photograph but even then, it would not be red. If there were a major blood stain, it would be a dark portion of a shirt of uniform. One of the photographs that was hand-colored early on shows a fair amount of blood. The fact is that on the black-and-white photo there is no indication of blood. During the period, hand-colorized photos were sort of an aesthetic.  It was added on some of the period shots I guess for drama. I did not go out of the way to hide blood but there was just no indication.

What is the reaction you hope people have when looking at the colorized photos of the Civil War?

The purpose of this is to show that people 150 years ago were not very different from us today. It will hopefully bring forth an era that’s only two long lifetimes ago. This is 150 years not 1,500 years. It was just as colorful then. People were just as real then. I hope that people will look at these photographs and get a more realistic feeling of what happened at that time.

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