History Teaching Tips

Black and White Photos in Colour?

Have you ever found that kids assume that life in the past was completely in black and white? You can understand why they would think that, can’t you! All our photos – from the 1830’s when photography was invented, up until the 1930’s and 40’s when colour photos became more commercially available – depict a past that is monochrome. Just this week, I came across this video on social media. In it, an artist is interviewed who restores colour to black and white photos.

The Debate: Should we Restore Black and White Photos to Colour?

This video brings up a couple of arguments as to why photos should or shouldn’t be restored to full colour. On the positive side, colour photos evoke a sense of reality. It is much easier to relate to people and the past if depictions of them are in colour – colour is the way we see the world. Also, it does help us notice details within pictures that allow us to understand people and moments in the past more deeply.

On the negative side, it is highly possible that artists could incorrectly colour photos! And not just any photos: incorrect restoration could occur in photos that depict highly significant events or people.

In the museum and heritage industry, restoring objects or buildings to how they appeared in their original state is subject to hot debate. Many heritage sites, like Rouse Hill House and Farm in Sydney, hold to a conservation policy instead. Conservation aims to halt further change to an artefact or building and keep intact all the history associated with an object or building over it’s lifetime. Both restoration and conservation have advantages and disadvantages.

Feature image of Martin Place courtesy of Royal Australian Historical Society.

How can we use Colourised Black and White Photos in History Classrooms?

  • History Stage 1 to Stage 6: Colourised black and white photos are likely to be more engaging to students. Also, students can compare colourised photos with their black and white originals to study the past. They will be able to notice details only visible with colour – take the 7-Up example in the video!
  • History Extension: Classroom debates could be had based around these questions: ‘Should photos be colourised?’ and ‘What problems could occur in restoring colour to monochrome photos?’ Perhaps your class would also enjoy these discussion sparking activities:
    • Half the class analyses a colourised photo, while the other half analyse its black and white counterpart. Each half then reveals what they learnt about the past from their photo and decide whether a colourised photo enhanced their understanding or not.
    • Students engage in research and decide which colours should be used in a black and white photo relevant to their case studies.

What is Memoirs of a Teapot’s Opinion?

I found this video fascinating. Colourising photos has so many applications for history education, sparking interest in the past, and understanding history! The science behind how black and white photos are restored to colour is also intriguing. To truly reflect colours missing from photos, so much time, effort, consultation, and research must be involved. I believe that this process is a useful way to further understand the past. So, so long as the black and white originals are retained and made available for comparison, I’m definitely all for it!

But what do you think? Should we restore black and white photos to colour?

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