Beauties of the past

You may have heard of “Deep Nostalgia.” About two weeks ago, the meme started making its way through the internet. It’s a technology that combines old photos with technology that maps them onto existing moving models. The result is that you get something that looks like a live photo… from before live photos were invented.

Sounds like a fun thing to do, until you realize that you have to sign up with yet another web site and upload your personal photos. If that doesn’t bother you, here’s the place you can do it, but personally it’s a little too scary for me right now. I stay away from those ancestry and heritage sites. I don’t need the whole world knowing when my great-great-grandmother came to this country.

Here’s a way you can appreciate this technology

Rather than look at your own ancestors, which I admit would be a lot of fun, you can look at colorized and motion-enabled photos of famous people. And honestly, it is a lot of fun too.

This video uses the same technology, as well as some very well done colorization, to give you a view at the celebrities of the past. Black and white photography can be a barrier to people who aren’t used to it, and it can serve to make us feel distant from people who lived just a moment ago. This video removes those barriers and adds a level of motion to give you a more intimate feeling when looking at these images.

Controversy #1: Will this technology destroy society?

There are folks who want to tell you that this tech is leading us to the eve of destruction. By creating more perfect, CGI-enhanced versions of people from the past, we’re short-circuiting the artistic process. The images in this video give us the impression that everyone 100 years ago was impossibly beautiful (although the hair care regimen may have been lacking.) This is no more accurate than thinking that people 100 years ago existed in shades of grey.

I disagree with this point of view. We tend to remember the past through the lens of the medium in which it’s presented. This is why when a film is set in the first half of the 20th century, it looks more “realistic” if it’s colored in brown tones, while stories set in the 1970s tend to push orange colors. Oh sure those colors were around back then but we’re more accustomed to seeing them because the old photos we have use those color palettes. Or, at the very least they’ve faded to those old color palettes.

You can get a beautiful view of what the past really looked like through facebook groups like Kodachrome Forever, which show scans of old slides with a color palette that looks like they were shot today.

Controversy #2: Is this technology destroying the artist’s intent?

This controversy has been around for decades. By adding color to things that didn’t have it, are we removing part of the artist’s intent? Certainly today, artists have the choice of shooting black-and-white or color, of tinting things to look different, or adding any filter they want. Pretty much everyone has these choices using their favorite apps.

But, I’d say, with the exception of true artists like Ansel Adams, most black-and-white photography of the day wasn’t the result of an artistic decision. It was a result of the technology that was available at a reasonable cost. Color photos have been around for over 120 years but it wasn’t until the advent of cheap color film in the 1960s that we saw it being used routinely. Even deep into my childhood and young adulthood, it was still much cheaper to shoot and develop black-and-white film and that’s why I did it.

You can definitely make an argument that there is a place for black-and-white photos. But more often than not with photos taken before 1950, the photographer had no choice. It was a limitation, not a choice. And let’s also remember that a lot of our famous photos were taken for use in magazines. Magazines of the day used only in black-and-white due to cost.

Let’s say you’re choosing to colorize something like the 2020 film Mank. There was always the intention to shoot and deliver this film in black-and-white. In that case you’re destroying the artist’s intent. But if you’re looking to colorize a photo of Ulysses S. Grant, you’re not.

Just my two cents. What do you think?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.