The past few years have seen a surge in the practice of digitally colourising black and white photos, encouraged by social media posts that showcase the skill by comparing the altered photo to the original. This process is not wholly new; colourising photos by painstakingly painting over them by hand is almost as old as photography itself. In the digital age, however, these ‘paintings’ have become increasingly accurate and lifelike.
Colourising photos is a labour-intensive process that requires extensive research and collaboration with historians and experts to identify the exact colours that would have been present, as well as detailed knowledge of how lighting affects colour and the ability to realistically convey complex structures such as human skin with layer upon layer of colour for a nuanced effect.
Colourised photos can be as moving as they are impressive, removing the distance between the viewer and the past and humanising historical figures. However, critics of the practice argue that artificially colourising photos is tantamount to rewriting the past. Whilst certainly striking, these digital paintings are at best an educated guess as to what the past might have looked like, and they should not be treated as historical documents alongside the original black and white originals. Indeed, some colourised photos in circulation contain glaring errors.
Applicants for Fine Art may wish to familiarise themselves with contemporary artistic tools and techniques and the impact of modern technology on the art scene. Those wishing to study History or History of Art should think about the relationship between art and history through the ages — for example, how art has been used by those in power to influence the public perception of historical figures and past events.