Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, March 11, 2013

History in Color

I've been reading several books on World War One of late, and one night found myself hunting around YouTube trying to discover whether anyone had put out a video showing WW1 era artilary pieces and what they actually looked like when firing. What I stumbled across in the process was a documentary series narrated by Kenneth Branaugh, entitled "World War One in Color". (Full series available on YouTube here, links to further episodes in the expanded video description.) Made in cooperation with the Imperial War Museum, the makers of the documentary colorized some 8 hours of vintage World War I footage, and this colorized footage is used throughout the documentary. (I've watched the first two episodes and want to get to more. Thus far I'd say it's a good but unexceptional discussion of the war. The main interest to me is the large amount of footage presented.) I'm not normally a fan of colorized movies, but the concept in this case struck me as interesting.

World War One, which began 99 years ago this summer, lives in a sort of twilight of historical memory. Taking place in the early 20th century, it lurks in the background of WW2 (which has attained its own mythic status as "the good war" against ultimate evil.) It is usually presented as a futile, unnecessary war in which the generals didn't yet understand how to deal with the implciations of modern technology and whose conclusion simply set the stage for World War II.

The war also has a distinctive visual look in our historical consciousness, characterized by the stark and grainy black and white photographs of trenches and blasted landscapes.

This gives the war a certain visual sense of distance and unreality. In this regard, colorizing footage of the war can give a certain sense of immediacy. The dirt is brown, the flames orange and red, the uniforms shades of blue, khaki, green and grey.

As I sought to read up a bit on the documentary, I discovered that getting a color view of the Great War does not rely solely upon modern colorization techniques. There were, in fact, color photos being taken, although the process was slow and thus the photos are all portrait and landscape images not "action" shots.

Der Speigal ran an article several years ago about one of the German photographers who documented the war in color.

There were also several French photographers taking color pictures during the war. Two fairly extensive websites are here and here.

These are utterly fascinating to me, and have in some ways contradictory effects on historical perception. Seeing the actual colors gives a certain sense of immediacy, yet it also serves to underscore some of the differences from what we would think of as "modern". The "horizon blue" of the French uniforms in particular seems as much 19th century as 20th, though of course, not nearly as much as so as the red trousers and red slouch hats (still similar to those worn in the Franco-Prussian war 40 years earlier) in which French soldiers started out the war.

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