The Civil War, Now in Living Color- page 2 | 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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(Continued from page 1)

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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