Colors and Photoshop: week 1

I enjoy color. I like playing with color wheels. I like exploring hues, tints, and shades. I fully admit that I have and will continue to lose numerous hours perusing color. But occasionally I need to be pulled back, like last week during critiques when Prof. Petrik commented that choosing the red for the sidebar was probably one step too far. So now I’m thinking about how I can revise my type assignment to tone down the other colors to able to keep the red sidebar, and as always trying to plan ahead for the final project site and how to balance the colors I want to use with the idea of making the most appropriate and aesthetically pleasing palette.

I’m looking forward to developing some Photoshop skills thanks to the lynda tutorial, if only to do very basic things like normalizing the color of old documents–something I would have liked to have done for last week, but had no idea how to execute. Beyond that I’m thrilled with the idea that I’ll be able to tweak/alter/colorize images, especially the early photographs I study. I have no qualms about doing so either. While dust specks, streaks, and blemishes can give scholars clues about a photographer’s technical ability or the conditions under which the image was made and handled, presenting that image on the web is a completely different issue. There I want to show the best representation of the image that I can, which is not to say that I’ll take crazy liberties and decide to color Andrew Johnson a charming fuchsia.

Early photographers exerted a tremendous amount of control over the images they produced: commonly they would wipe plates clean when an exposure was not to their liking and they endeavored to create the highest quality images possible. I cannot imagine that one would be pleased by evidence of imperfections and go out of his/her way to preserve the flaw unless there was sufficient (mostly meaning financial) reason. Here is one case where I think alteration is perfectly valid and ideal. The Library of Congress (in all their wisdom) has digitized a good chunk of their daguerreotype collection as black and white images based on photographs taken of the originals years ago. The black and white versions make it difficult to impossible to see differences in tone and coloration, let alone any hand-painted embellishment or the color and texture of the cases, all important information for a historian studying the object. If I were able to alter the black and white image to restore these subtleties and then use the altered image as part of my web project I would both be respecting the original skill and artistry of the photograph while presenting an ideal image for the viewers–a better alteration to my mind than the one made by the LOC when they rendered the images black and white.

Designing for the web is about creating the best possible viewer experience in all aspects: navigation, typography, and image presentation among others. To me, there is an acceptable divide in approach between presenting an image as an element on a webpage, designed to visually support a body of text (the most common usage for images), and presenting an image as an artifact and object of investigation in itself. I think the latter demands greater attention to noting any alterations (including historical ones) and the highest quality image to see every bit of detail, which is a different conversation altogether.

*Update: I commented on Geoff’s post “Fear and Loathing in History” and Jeri’s this week.


8 thoughts on “Colors and Photoshop: week 1

  1. Do you know if the LOC digitized their daguerreotypes as black and white images because that is what the technology allowed at the initial time of digitization? The digitized images from the VHS are lopsided in their quality in part because of the improvement in technology. Also the Board and senior staff were originally afraid that people would download digitized images from the website and use them in print media thus cheating the VHS out of “processing” fees and attribution. This fear caused them to insist that all digital images from the online catalog be watermarked with “Property of Virginia Historical Society.” I’m not sure what the current situation is, but when I worked there the digital resources staff had yet to rescan all the images that had been watermarked because they simply didn’t have the time or the people. Is the LOC in a similar situation (if they are, I’d be more than willing to be their scanner technician cause I would love a full-time job at the Library of Congress)? Although in general their digital collections are kind of a mess. I know some of the stuff posted isn’t theirs to begin with, which only compounds the problem of consistency.

    • From what I recall from my conservation with one of LOC archivists, the daguerreotypes were digitized as one big project from the print and slide copies they had and not directly from the originals. For some they have great full color TIFFs of the originals plus the black and white versions, and some there are only the black and white images. It’s a bit haphazard. What bothered me the most was that I was told I didn’t need to request seeing them in person because they were all digitized, and they didn’t find it necessary to qualify in what formats/condition they were available. I also foolishly didn’t bother to check the quality of the scans before I went back to Calgary (huge learning experience!). There are still plenty of images from the VHS with the watermark; I checked last semester for my final project for Clio1.

  2. I had been thinking about you and your project this week with all the readings on images. I was surprised to hear about the LOC black and white changes. I have spent a good bit of time looking through the Civil War prints from my job with NPS and it seems to me that now there are a lot of images which are presented in their ornate frames. Does this represent a change in policy based on historian demands, or technology improvements?

    • I think you’ve got a good point about demand. A lot of the black and white images I came across were ordinary portraits. Civil War images are in such high demand that it seems like they get priority of resources. There aren’t as many daguerreotypes of the CW period, as that technology had been overtaken by the collodion process, which allowed for vast numbers of prints from negatives, something not feasible with daguerreotypy.

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  5. Do you think that as a rule it is OK to present the visually altered image on the web simply because the image needs to be visually appealing and support the website’s overall appearance? What if you are one of the art historians in the class, or even in your own digital history project you are referencing an image, but you have also altered that image for the web. I can see where in some situations altering the image for the web is no problem, but if in the text you are referencing an image and analyzing it, I don’t think that is right to present the audience the visually altered image.

    Also looking to the future, if you took pictures in the process of doing your research, and then you digitally altered the pictures for your site, might future historians use those altered images without knowing you changed them? It seems to me maybe there needs to be some sort of disclaimer if one has photoshopped an image. However, at the same time, what’s the difference between photoshopping and “staging” a picture to make it seem like reality? The more I think about it, the more questions I have!

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