It Was a Colorful World

We all grow accustomed to seeing the past (at least pre-1950) in black and white. I don’t mean this (only) metaphorically—I’m referring to the monochromatic and chiaroscuro tints of black-and-white photography.

Of course we all know that the world of the past wasn’t black and white—it was as colorful as today is. And there is a marked difference in our emotional reaction to the somewhat cold images of black-and-white film than there is to the more ‘realistic’ images taken with color film. Black-and-white images seem somehow distant and very still, while color images seem immediate and brimming with life.

But what to do about it? For the better part of a century, photos were all black and white.

Enter a friend of mine, an artist and computer expert who a few years back grasped a simple (but usually overlooked) truth about black and white photographs—that to capture a color image in black and white, the film had to ‘translate’ all of the colors of the real world into various shades of gray.

It must be possible, he thought, to go in the other direction—and using an understanding of how black-and-white film encodes color, to tease out and recover the original colors from a black-and-white image. Think of it as black-and-white photography, but in reverse.

Some of the colors recovered in this way will be a bit attenuated, since black-and-white film wasn’t designed to capture colors precisely, but only to render them as shades of grey. Still, this color recovery—as opposed to the colorization we see almost every day on television—is a pretty good representation of the actual colors of the original photographic subject.

I know this process of his (the technology is his own, and he’s not sharing it!) works, because when I first met him, I gave him a couple black-and-white photos from my early childhood. I knew—though he didn’t—what color my father’s car was, what color my mother’s sweater was, and so on. When the images were returned to me . . . he had nailed it.

Since then, I’ve sent him what original (they must be originals, by the way) photographs I have from the Gilded Age, and little by little I’ve amassed a collection of images that make me gasp. So, without further delay or fanfare, here are some examples.

First, an 1897 mugshot of a fellow picked up by Buffalo police (and a visiting Pinkerton detective) on suspicion of being a con artist.

This cool customer came to town to prey on visiting veterans of the Grand Encampment of the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic, the Union soldiers’ veterans association), impersonating a wealthy Texan—one Mr. G. Bedell Moore—who was waiting for a bank draft to clear. Over a number of days, he inveigled quite a few Buffalo businessmen and a few vets into wining and dining him at their expense—until they found out he was an imposter. He also purchased the suit of clothes you see him wearing from Mr. Isidore Cohen, a merchant tailor. Moore (or whatever his real name way, I don’t know) gave Mr. Cohen a bogus check for $35 to cover the suit—about $1,500 in our money today.

I think it does look like a very nice suit indeed.

Next up is another Buffalo mugshot. This guy (William Stevens, alias Harry Hill) was picked up in 1905 for stealing an automobile—which is saying something, because in 1905 there still weren’t very many automobiles in Buffalo. (I suppose that made him easier to catch.) 

Compared to our first fellow, I (almost) feel sorry for Mr. Stevens/Hill, because he looks decidedly worried about the consequences of his actions.

The third and final image (for today) is especially peculiar and intriguing.

I don’t know if this is a photo of a man and his two sisters (the women do resemble each other) or his two wives. Could be either—polygamy (though frowned upon) was practiced openly in the United States, especially in the Utah Territory, from the 1830s until at least a decade after the 1882 Edmunds Act ostensibly prohibited it. 

There’s something uncanny and intimate about the these three people, and their dress is most definitely period-appropriate to the plural marriage era. So my money’s on this being a photograph of a man and his wives.

You can make up your own minds!

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that the color-recovery versions of each photograph bring these people back to full and vibrant life.

​I have more such photographs to share, so if you enjoy these please let me know. Otherwise I’ll keep them to reveal at presentations, where they always get more than their fair share of ooh’s and aah’s.