Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Old Photos

I was taught history much the way I was taught about foreign cultures.  Historical events were put into context of cultural beliefs, expectations, norms, etc of the time in which they occurred.  Which is not something I object to, but it also came with flavor of making people from the past sort of exotic.  Look at all the strange beliefs and rules they had back then!

We tend to other our ancestors.  We are colonizers of our own past eras, replacing what we see as outlandish and barbaric beliefs and practices with our better, modern ones.  And along the way, we also construct our image of them to suit the story of progress we want to tell.  And as long as we're reaching back far enough, there aren't any people around to object, to stand up for their own subjectivity.  They're dead.

Which is why I am so stunned by many of the digitally recolored old photographs that have been surfacing online.  Old black-and-white photos of people in stiff poses and funny fashions are easy to other.  But not every old photo fits that mold.  And sometimes, just the addition of color is enough to take a civil war photograph and make it into a Rolling Stone cover, or a twitter avatar.  Looking at these faces without the distancing effect of time makes them uncomfortably real.  I am forced to grant them more subjectivity than I am used to giving.

Lewis Powell, 1865.  Photograph by Alexander Gardner
(unknown coloring credit)

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