Diarmaid Ferriter: Colourisation undermines the essence of old photos

There is now a relentless quest to seemingly ‘improve’ original photos and video footage

RTÉ News gave pride of place during the week to an archive of film from Co Clare in the late 1920s. The footage was recorded by Fox Movietone News cameramen and is captivating, depicting school children from St Brigid's national school in Liscannor and adults working and dancing. With advanced colour technology, NUI Galway engineer John Breslin is working on a project to colourise this black and white footage which is held in the University of South Carolina. In what now seems standard practice, this story was introduced as an example of technology bringing the 1920s archive "to life".

That is an erroneous assertion. The original footage has the “life”, but we are living through a period where there is a relentless quest to seemingly “improve” original photos and video footage. It is an understandably popular enterprise; Breslin and his colleague Sarah Anne-Buckley’s Old Ireland in Colour books are hugely successful, and I have no doubt the motivation underpinning them is a noble one: to make historic images more accessible and to make people feel they are being brought closer to their history.

But are they? The first instalment of Breslin and Buckley’s book contains more than 170 photographs of 19th- and 20th-century Irish society, and in introducing it, they noted “debates on the colourisation of black and white films and photographs have been ongoing since the 1980s. We do not wish to engage with these debates”. Why not? If they are going to, in their own words, “acknowledge fully the ethical concerns that arise from altering these primary documents” surely a more robust engagement with those concerns is merited?

Another new book of colourised photos, by Rob Cross, The Colour of Ireland, covers the period 1860 to 1960 and includes the originals as well as the colour versions. When Cross asked me last year to write a foreword to his book, I agreed on condition that I could raise my concerns about the whole process. Publishers, of course, are usually just looking for glowing endorsements but to their credit, they agreed.


The photographers of the late 19th century and those shooting footage in the early 20th century understood the possibilities and limitations of their medium and used it accordingly, but now, the images of history are no longer deemed to be “the final picture”. Colourisation is far from an exact science, and it is also a form of interference with evidence – albeit generally well-intentioned and sometimes the result of assiduous research of context – that can undermine the essence of the images.

What about the memories the originals hold or generate – why do we have to interfere with them?

UCD art historian Emily Mark-FitzGerald has made that case forcefully, pointing to the degree of invention of colours during the production process of colourisation which “entirely erases what is actually interesting about historical photos”. It is a viewpoint that deserves to be heard; as Mark-FitzGerald sees it, the development choices of the original photographer are lost and usurped as is “the tonality, richness and grain of the original image…these are all part of the photo’s history and materiality”.

Whether colourisers spend minutes or hours working on a photo, there is an element of guesswork and computer programmes and historical context can be uncomfortable bedfellows. The pictures that were taken at any moment in time were the pictures as the takers saw them; what those working with a 19th-century camera saw, in colour, can be far from the same as what a colourised photograph becomes in the 21st century.

Do the black and white images and footage, after colourisation, become more about the colour than the subjects? What about the memories the originals hold or generate – why do we have to interfere with them? And why do some modern photographers prefer to take black and white photos? Is it because black and white is, for them, more penetrative?

Peter Jackson’s ground-breaking 2018 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, involving modernised and colourised footage of the first World War understandably stirred deep, emotional responses. The scale of the technical challenge met and the resources and efforts that went into its making were lauded. As the soldiers arrive on the Western Front and the footage moves to colour the impact is mesmeric, but are we really seeing the war, for the first time, as they saw it? Are the methods that were used at the time to capture these men not themselves an intrinsic part of that time? All these questions are worth considering and debating.

It would be churlish to deny people the pleasure they get from these images and footage, but it is also fair, in parallel, to make the case that the people captured in these images lived before colour photography or film and that we should leave them there without interference. Would the photographers of today be content knowing that in the future their carefully crafted images could be reinterpreted by a computer programme?