It often happens on the internet, since its revolutions happen so fast, that I see a picture, then some days or weeks later, it comes up again. This time it was a wide-angle shot of some girls on a rooftop, boxing, seventy or eighty years ago. One girl deftly dodging while another one is in the act of a punch. Other girls look on. Stretching one way and the other, a cityscape. The effect is lively, vertiginous; the boxing gloves are dark, their skin and shirts are pale. It was likely staged, but feels real.
Next time I see it, something has changed. I look a long time before I see that the girls have a faint blush. The gloves are tinted red. The flashing on the roof reflects the sky, which is a pale blue. Their boxing clothes are mint green. Someone has gently colorized the picture. A young Ted Turner, with Photoshop. It never looks right, since all the color has been rendered as light and shadow, the tacked on color, if done with reverence, always looks like a thin film. The living scene becomes a post card.
I have an album of post cards, from the turn of the century, when color photography was still too expensive. At first, people colored pictures they took by hand, with blobs of watercolor, or pencils. But an enterprising litho-shop invented Photocrom, where they’d take a black and white negative and expose it on a series of stone plates, adjusting the intensities to suit each color for the scene. They made post cards they sold for a penny people snatched up to send. What did color say in a black and white world, but “I was really there,” for common people who had not the leisure to master the skill of painting nor the time to fritter away.
There are some post cards of churches in my album from the middle ages. Stained glass, and painted wooden statues. There is something childlike, garish, bordering on bad taste in it. The primary colors and dysmorphic bodily forms. The artists are anonymous, as are the architects who designed, and the laborers who set the individual stones of, the great medieval cathedrals. If not a democratic art, the great art of that time was a civic art suited to a simple society.
The Italy of the Renaissance was anything but a simple society, with a sprouting of competing states motivated by the intersection of religion, politics, and commerce. It wasn’t just classical ideas that were filtering into Italy with the dispersal of the Byzantine power, the movements of the crusades, and the spread of armies of merchants, but the ground itself was giving birth to ancient art, ancient statues dug up, carved from marble, worn, pitted by age, some with faces Christian triumphalism had chiseled with crosses. The effect was impressionistic, but alive. There were saints, and emperors, Christian and pagan, there were gods, and demi-gods. Roman copies of Greek originals. Rescued from the earth, miraculously intact, or broken armed, or headless, marble ranged from fine, almost translucent to thick and phlegmy.
In Florence, Michelangelo could read Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” with a Latin tutor, first reading about the creatures born out of mud in the aftermath of Deucalion’s flood, then of the statue Galatea coming to life in sculptor Pygmalion’s arms. No wonder he envisioned his statues as alive, and trapped inside the marble block. Renaissance sculptors hewed to the old style so closely, that with a little artificial aging, one of young Michelangelo’s buyers suggested, they could pass his John the Baptist off as a dug up statue, and fetch a much higher price. Michelangelo agreed. Though the subterfuge was found out, a Roman Cardinal was so impressed with the youngster’s skills that he brought Michelangelo to Rome.
While the Renaissance artists may not have been elites, the audience of the artwork, unlike the art of centuries prior, was the monied or powered class, bankers, princes, and popes. Sometimes all three at once. There was something of that Roman greatness in the clean, graceful lines of naked, chiseled stone, in expanding the range of allowed subjects beyond the Christian milieu to include all the prodigies of the past.
White marble statue proliferates in sculpture galleries as successive generations worked within the Renaissance tradition, which itself carried forward the traditions of Classical Rome and Greece, to artists of the present day who communicate with this tradition, too — Kara Walker just unveiled a colossal statue, a “New World Sphinx” out of sugar in the old Domino plant, it plays with racial identity in its intensely shining white.
Artists and patrons of Michelangelo’s time turned away from the too common medieval art, too obvious and crude, for something they felt was more sublime. But the Greek and Roman statues they saw, and the ones we admire now, were not the same when they were first made. A careful look at the marble shows flakes of colored pigment. Under ultraviolet light, the ancient statues reveal various patterns of paint. There are the fragments of pulverized shells and plant matter. The ancient statues had been thick with brightly colored paint.
Our fondest artworks have been manufactured by time. This is even more apparent when you walk a flea-market, or visit an older relative’s home. You pull open a drawer, and see something that fifty years ago was trash, but a combination of novelty and nostalgia, scarcity and survival have made it new, and wonderful, maybe for the first time. Like a pull-top beer-can, bent, a little rusted, and bleached with age, what was ordinary has become almost sophisticated.
Hence, the popularity of Hipstamatic, and then Instagram. The most successful filters at first were the simple ones that aged a picture. The equivalent of Michelangelo and his partner rubbing his Saint John the Baptist over with dirt. Add a vignette, and tone the color down, put a Polaroid frame around it, or a blur. Give the ordinary street scape or your brunch plate the endorsement of time.
The original Photochrom post cards were a technological and economical feat, intended to bring a richer experience to the masses. This was the rationale for the abortive efforts in the 80s led by Ted Turner to colorize old movies. Younger audiences, who had grown up on color, wouldn’t appreciate them in black and white. A few years before, Paul Simon had sung:
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
Everything looks worse in black and white
Though, when Eastman Kodak had sued him over the song, for a while, in concert, he sang that last lyric as “Everything looks better in black and white.” After all, it really depends.
I even discovered a whole subreddit, r/ColorizedHistory, “dedicated to high quality colorizations of historical black and white images.” There are more too. In most of the descriptions and references to this tactic, all you here is how “alive” the colored photos are, “revivified,” as if it “really happened.”
The Photochrom pictures were often colorized years after the photograph had been taken, by someone who had never seen the original scene. The computer colorized films of the 80s were done, expediently. The millions of pixels clicked from one shade to another by the Photoshoppers colorizing history are neither that likely, nor all that effective really.
By adding the trappings of age to modern photographs, and stripping them away from historical ones, we try to assert our superiority to the only art that matters, the art of time. But we’re mistaken. The life of a picture is its age.