Dana Keller and Seeing History in Color

By John Campopiano

Color plays such a vital role in our everyday lives – even if we’re not always aware of it. Color also plays a significant role in how we think about and understand history. Surely we’re all familiar with black and white photographs (&/or film) and most likely have a similar kind of knee-jerk reaction when seeing something in black and white: It’s old. But perhaps we overlook the reality that the past, no matter how far back our minds dare to dream, was full of color just as our current reality is. So, what kinds of feelings or ideas come to mind when we think about someone exercising their artistic skill to bring color – and with it life – to images of the past? We strove to explore these very questions and others with Boston-based colorist and trained archivist, Dana Keller.
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John Campopiano: When did you first start coloring historical photographs?

Dana Keller: I have been colorizing photographs for a little over 2 years. My interest in it began when I had seen a collection of colorized photos online that was receiving a lot of attention for being very realistic. To me, these images, while indeed very carefully and thoughtfully colorized, did not really look true-to-life, but rather more like paintings. They no longer resembled photographs. I had seen many colorizations before, and they have always looked very stylized, or at least it was unmistakable that they had been colorized, as opposed to resembling an actual color photograph. Having a background in art and several years experience with photography, I began to colorize photos myself and attempted to concentrate more on the subtleties of realistic colors and shading, with the goal of eliminating as much as possible the viewer’s awareness of the fact that the photo was colorized, and to enable the viewer to see it from a new perspective, as if it were actually a color photograph.

JC: Could you discuss the creative liberties that are at play during the transformative process, namely, with regards to choosing colors to use in any given photograph?

DK: One of the more difficult aspects to colorizing is selecting the appropriate colors. No color information is available in the grey values, so in order to preserve as much authenticity as possible, researching colors is a must. But since it’s of course impossible to research everything, that can only take you so far. It then comes down to some educated guessing. Grey values hint at what the possible colors could be; mix that in with some context clues and historical knowledge, and you can then start to build a realistic portrayal of what the scene could have looked like to the photographer at that moment. The key word there is could. There will always be a significant margin for inaccuracy and some “artistic license”.

Another heavy difficulty comes from poor quality images. Of course most of these historical photographs are over a hundred years old and are often faded and worn, they contain very little grey values, which are essential in order to realistically apply color. Aside from the significant age factor, black and white photographs are largely taken with different aspects in mind than with color photographs, mainly exposing for contrast rather than uniform detail. Very often, a black and white image will be taken with too much contrast or with too much exposure to allow for a color version that will be suitable, so some image editing has to be done to attempt to bring out details if at all possible. Often times image details are simply irrecoverable, rendering the photos unfit for colorization.

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JC: I’m curious to hear a little about how you view a newly colorized work in relation to its original, non-colorized version. For you, what (if any) sort of relationship(s) exist?

DK: With black and white photos, we tend to feel somewhat distant and disconnected from the real and vibrant world those photos are actually portraying. And why shouldn’t we? The world was never in black and white, and it’s not something we are used to seeing in our day to day reality. By introducing color, these images can suddenly seem more familiar, and we are hopefully brought a little closer to the reality in which they were taken. Colorized photos can provide an opportunity for us to see a moment in history with a different perspective, a chance to connect with an increasingly distant but still very real and relevant past.

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However, even though colorized photographs may potentially portray a more realistic view of the world (i.e., not black and white), they should of course not be viewed as replacements or enhancements on the original black and white images, nor should they be meant to assume any resemblance of authority as a historical artifact. They are meant to give the viewer an opportunity to see an image from history with a fresh pair of eyes, not to change an original record. 

JC: Do you prefer to have a point of reference when colorizing a photograph (i.e., having a first-hand account of how something might have looked) or would you rather have full creative license?

DK: When attempting to be as historically accurate as possible, any reference material or knowledge that will assist in that is always preferred over having to come up with the colors from educated guessing. Not only does it save time in trial and error, but it’s always nice to have a solid reference for a color, especially when the grey value that it corresponds to isn’t one that I would have necessarily expected. By having one reference color, it can help to determine the lighting of the scene, and consequently help me in choosing other colors more accurately.

JC: Could you talk about your training as an archivist and if/how this training might conflict with some of the colorizing work you’re doing?

DK: Having been trained as an archivist, the fact that I am involved in and heavily advocate for colorization is an interesting controversy. As someone with a degree in archival science, it’s essentially part of my responsibility and nature to want to conserve historical documents/photographs as they are, and to preserve them for future generations. Several archivists and a great many others who have a passion for history see colorization as perhaps a misrepresentation of history or even a deliberate defacing or violation of the original records. I can certainly understand and appreciate their perspective from all angles.

My perspective, and what I believe to be the position of most colorizers, is that colorization is done out of a respect and reverence for history, not as a means of improving upon it. I see it as a very powerful tool–an opportunity to experience a closer connection to history and to offer that perspective to others who may want to experience it as well. And we’re free to take it or leave it. I want to reiterate that colorized photographs are not by any means meant to stand in for the originals or supersede their authority as historical records. For those who may not necessarily appreciate colorization, the good news is, no original photographs of history were harmed, destroyed, violated, overwritten, or disturbed at all whatsoever in the creation of these images. They are all still here for us all to see and enjoy and preserve for the future. And that’s part of the beauty of it, I think.

JC: Two parts:

Could you talk about an instance in which you received push back for your colorizing work? What were the circumstances surrounding the incident?

DK: When I first started colorizing, I shared some of my work with a few archivists, seeking their opinion on whether there was a place for colorization in the archives. Understandably, the idea was met with some backlash. This came mostly from senior archivists, their standpoint being that colorization, by its very nature, was completely contradictory to the mission of the archives, i.e., to preserve historical documents with minimal influence from the archivist. While in theory I agreed, I was still not convinced that there wasn’t a use for it within the archive world.

JC: Could you talk about a positive experience that stands out from your colorizing work?

DK: In my experience, the overall response to colorization has been very positive. The majority of people tend to see the photographs in a new way when they are colorized, and they express that it does indeed help them to appreciate the events and figures of the past as more relevant.

JC: Do you feel there is a place for the artist within the archives? Please explain.

DK: Absolutely. Art and design already play an important role through the curation of archival collections with how materials are represented and how they engage the public. In the archives, colorization can be considered another facet of that presentation. As mentioned above, colorization can help “connect” people to history; it can bridge the gap from a distant event and make it feel as immediate and relevant as it was when the photo was taken. This effectiveness can be used to engage different communities and generate interest. For example, a historical society, which was in the process of converting an old train station into a museum, commissioned me to colorize a photo of the building. They felt that the colorized image would allow greater opportunity for people to connect and feel the relevance of this historic place in their community, and would thus help generate funding for the project. Of course, being a historical society, they wanted to be as accurate as possible in the coloring process. In order to achieve this, they were able to take color samples from the base layer of paint on the building, which had been painted over many times through the years. By providing the data for the colors, we were able to color the image with a great deal more accuracy. So in practice, if we can build up the image with as much existing knowledge of colors as possible, often times using the archives own resources, we can then perhaps begin to create, theoretically, a more accurate—albeit of course artificial—representation of history. This can be a strong publicity tool, used to help tell the story of the images, giving people a unique and different way to connect to photographic collections.

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JC: Without giving too much of the magic away, can you talk a bit about the technical skills/components involved with colorizing photographs? (I.e., software, hardware, etc.)

DK: All of the colorizing is done digitally, but still done mostly by hand. I use Photoshop and a Wacom tablet to “paint” in the colors on multiple layers so that they blend together to hopefully create a realistic blend of color. Part of the trick to colorizing is keeping careful attention to light and shadows, quality of light, etc. Take an up-close look at an actual color photograph and you’ll immediately see that light interacts with the world in very complex ways, and nothing is just one solid color. Lighting will sometimes play tricks on you, too. Depending on the color temperature, (e.g. time of day, or sunlight vs. incandescent), something that you perceive as “red” may actually be blue or purple when taking a color sample. All of these variables are essential to keep in mind when striving for realism in colorization.

Ghost in the Artifact: Object-Oriented Histories and the Archaeology of the Present

by Matt Spry

There’s a scene in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction where Captain Koons, played by Christopher Walken, explains the history behind a gold watch he’s delivering to the adolescent son of a fallen Vietnam War comrade. On its face, this scene is evidence that Walken is a great actor and Quentin Tarantino writes dialogue well. More important, though, it demonstrates that even seemingly mundane objects have interesting and sincere stories attached to them.

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Since founding the Mobile Museum of American Artifacts (MMoAA) about two years ago, director Laurelin Kruse has explored the relationship between objects, the people who owned them, and the stories that bind them together. During a June 2015 event in Somerville, MA (co-sponsored by NEMMC), Kruse stood in front of the 1968 Cardinal travel trailer that houses the museum’s collection, and discussed its origins, objectives, and ongoing collection development.

The fuels that keep this traveling museum running are, according to Kruse, “the sincerity of people who participate” and “feeling the ‘ghosts’ behind objects.” When she drives MMoAA to a new destination, it’s an opportunity to welcome new visitors to the exhibit and convey the museum’s message of embracing the connectedness and richness of everyday life. Then, there’s an implicit opportunity to convert these visitors to donors; many museum patrons (this author included) donate personal objects from their own lives. Some people may learn of the MMoAA’s impending visit to their community and bring a donation during their first walk-through. Others only learn about the museum upon their first visit and are compelled to run home for something meaningful to donate. Every donation is accompanied by a donor form for additional context. Kruse makes an audio recording of each donor’s story about the object — a requirement for every donation — and his or her connection to it. Since Kruse performs no additional research about an object’s origins, the donor’s memories alone comprise the wall text that future visitors will read when the object is exhibited.

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As part of this process, Kruse is exploring an “archaeology of the present” and whether “it’s possible to create [a] kind of intimate, emotional connection between strangers” through the relatable stories that donors tell about their personal items. The objects that line the shelves of the museum’s walls couldn’t be more different — a pair of oven-melted glasses sits alongside a group of “flip” cell phones and an antique doorknob, among other exhibit configurations — but all of them, now divorced from their primary use, attain artifactual value in this museum setting. However, in the space between an object and the donor who once used it, an odd phenomenon emerges, according to Kruse. “[W]e can try so hard to summon a person or a moment through an object, something that was once very much alive, but objects are inherently inanimate, and so this absence and silence is all the more apparent, devastating, creepy, heartbreaking, present. Objects contain the presence of an absence and an absence of a presence.”

MMoAA’s approach to collection development — where the donor might be anyone, the object could be anything, and personal narrative trumps aesthetic value — breaks sharply with conventional museum practice, and Kruse found resistance within the field of libraries, museums, and archives (LAM) even before the project was operational. In relaying a discussion she had with a museum curator, she noted that “he shook his head often, and wondered what I was doing there (with my half-baked idea). I left totally devastated and thinking I’d made a huge mistake, that at best I’d end up with a pile of meaningless junk, or more likely, nothing at all.” Since the project has been on the road, however, Kruse has been surprised and encouraged by the reactions of visitors, donors, and colleagues. “Now that MMoAA has had a little time to become itself, people in the LAM field, seeing the MMoAA parked in front of their institution of employment, or at their local farmer’s market, have for the most part been surprised and delighted by the MMoAA. One of my favorite parts of this whole project is that it inspires spontaneous conversations with people in the field who constantly think about these issues and are at the forefront of how the field is changing.”

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While Kruse’s subversion of the traditional museum model is not without its detractors, it does speak to a continuing trend of community-focused hybridization within the LAM field. Libraries continue to embrace their roles as makerspaces. The success of StoryCorps is evidence of a sustained public interest in oral histories. Pop-up museums are all the rage. As much as MMoAA bears many of the traditional marks of a museum, it can also be considered a sort of object-oriented oral history project. “Not everyone is on board, but my hope is that it will make people think a little differently about museums, our own pasts, objects, the stories we tell, how we assign meaning and value, where nostalgia comes from, why we’re trying to preserve the past or make it known, and whose history we’re telling and who is telling it,” Kruse said.

While her aspirations for MMoAA include collecting donations from all 50 states and a potential documentary project, Kruse remains focused on developing the collection through contributions gathered during artist residencies and stops throughout the country. She added, “as the collection grows and features objects and stories from a wider range of geographic locations and communities, I’d like to play with that more, showcasing artifacts that may contrast with my current location, or complement it.”
The MMoAA will be featured at the Rocky Neck Artist Colony in Gloucester, MA through September 28, 2015, before traveling to The Children’s Museum of Denver in Colorado on October 10, 2015. Kruse and the museum will end the autumn season in Green River, UT for the Frontier Fellows Artist Residency at Epicenter from October 22 through November 22, 2015. For more information on the continuing travels of Kruse and MMoAA, visit: themmoaa.org.