it almost feels like time travel.
October 7, 2020 4:07 PM   Subscribe

“Even as a photo historian, I look at them and think, oh, wow, that's quite an arresting image,” she says. “But always then my next impulse is to say, 'Well, why am I having that response? And what is the person who's made this intervention on the restoration actually doing? What information has this person added? What have they taken away?” Historians discuss upscaling and colorizing historical film, and ethical responsibilities of preservation versus enhancement.
posted by Lonnrot (17 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I don't really care for the combative framing in the headline, but I thought this was an interesting piece that is a lot more nuanced than "Historians Versus Upscalers." The process itself is fairly interesting in its own right and reading about the different perspectives here brought to mind the section near the end of Against the Day where a process is invented to "un-freeze" photographs, allowing subjects to move out of frame with the simulated passage of time, or the sections in Gnomon about photography as a technology initially aiming to capture white European subjects, so darker complexions were not taken into consideration and often distorted in the final images.

This seemed another interesting way in which the technological and the cultural intersect.
posted by Lonnrot at 4:12 PM on October 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

One tidbit that stuck out to me is that the colorizing AI, which is trained on modern color photos and films, tends to want to give people blue jeans anachronistically!
posted by rikschell at 5:46 PM on October 7, 2020 [11 favorites]

I am unashamedly an anti-upscale and anti-colourist partisan, professionally and aesthetically—a photograph or film is more than a 'window' into the past, it can be a piece of evidence or historical source material that takes training and context to interpret.

What this—and a lot of rest of the debate about contemporary colourisation—misses is that there was a huge industry of photographic colourisers who worked on commercial imagery, for publication, display, reproduction. The Wuppertal footage imitates the aesthetic, in a bit of irony I think Shiraev isn't fully aware of. They used watercolours, they tried to have as light a touch as possible, they had a relatively restricted pallet.

They did it in almost exactly the same way Photoshop is used today to make 'clever' images; it was understood as an additive process that used raw photographs in an artistic way, either as high-art (in the Pictorialist tradition, which was an explicit movement to use process-printing as an emotional artistic tool) or as a commercial process to sell more postcards and magazines, or make a better looking commodity in an ad. People did seem to have the same double-sense that we do when, for instance, we look at a 'photoshopped' picture of a good-looking model, with wrinkles brushed over and teeth whitened, 'knowing' that it's not actually real-real, but still participating in the display of imagery; just as when you or I go to a photographer, we want them to make us look good, not necessarily to make us look as we are. That's fine, but we need to call it what it is.

When we have a visceral reaction to an image, there is art going on.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:47 PM on October 7, 2020 [13 favorites]

It's amazing to me that the Wired article doesn't even mention audio. Hearing horses and people murmuring and streetcar whistles is a huge part of what makes these upscaled videos feel more real and immediate. But of course it's a completely invented soundscape. There is no authenticity there. What you're watching feels more "real" than the original, but all these subtle changes add up to something that veers from history into pastiche.
posted by oulipian at 6:05 PM on October 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

I find the argumentation in the article pretty weak. The quoted historians just say oh, it has this or that effect on how people feel about the image. Maybe there's some actual research on that, but it doesn't show up in the article. All that makes it through are some pretty bald assertions that seem to be more about historians want us to feel than anything else.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:38 PM on October 7, 2020 [7 favorites]

I am unashamedly pro-upscale and pro-colorization. Peter Jackson's "They Shall Not Grow Old" gives us a more visceral and immediate view of what happened in World War I than looking at original, damaged and janky film would, and more effectively communicates to a wider audience what was going on then. It's not like the original film is destroyed. It still exists, and in fact because of the work that had to be done it's probably better preserved.

If an archaeologist creates a reconstruction of a building in Pompeii based on what was discovered in a dig, it gives us much more of an idea of what life was like in that building. It's also why I appreciate things like VR flythroughs of what a locale or building would have been like in previous areas. The visitors center at Vianden Castle, for example, has digital reconstructions of each era of the castle and area (from Roman to current) that really expanded my understanding of the place. Upscaling and colorizing old film footage (and smoothing out the motion and timing) seems very similar to me.
posted by rednikki at 8:02 PM on October 7, 2020 [21 favorites]

> They did it in almost exactly the same way Photoshop is used today
> to make 'clever' images; [...] People did seem to have the same
> double-sense that we do

I guess context is important here - at the time there were no colour photographs so it would have been immediately obvious that a colour image had extra information added. There might still have been an erroneous assumption that a monochrome image was an accurate record of something so the same problem is there, just different. As photography became more widely known, it became common knowledge that a photograph of, say, a fairy at the foot of your garden need not be taken as proof of the existence of such a thing. On the other hand, as colour photographs become familiar then the fact that a hand-coloured photograph has added information becomes less obvious. The rise of Photoshop changes the landscape once again and people understand that even less trust must be automatically granted to a photographic "record". As the panic over deep fake sets in, we see exactly the same sequence of ideas being applied to video.

Restoration and enhancement of photographs and video beings the benefit of accessibility and broader understanding and there is great value in that, especially as it is a non-destructive process, leaving the original record available with whatever separate value it contains. That these tools may be abused for nefarious purposes is a problem for all tools, requiring independent solutions.
posted by merlynkline at 12:11 AM on October 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of technical, disciplinary, and philosophical issues here that are probably inaccessible/irrelevant to most of the people viewing these films. Such as restoring vs. enhancing, AI versus human color judgment, the importance of context, and so on. But everything gets restored all the time. If more people view these enhanced clips that's good, I think.

She has already had students submitting essays which include falsely colourised images without realising it. I think (without being snarky, and as an educator) that that is a classroom/curriculum issue?

Some of this stuff (unmooring etc.) reminds me of Walter Benjamin's The work of art the the age of mechanical reproduction. So it's already a conversation that's almost a hundred years old.
posted by carter at 3:47 AM on October 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

There was a lot I wanted to say about this, but rednikki summed up my feelings perfectly, so I'll try to add something else about Luke McKernan's criticism of Peter Jackson's "They Shall Not Grow Old"...

It seems to boil down to "upscaling and colourizing are inaccurate, both in terms of reproducing the true colours/details, as well as in terms of representing the recording media that was used by the photographer at the time". I don't think he's wrong, but I think there's a gap between those statements and the conclusion that such work has no value!

I felt something very visceral when I saw the Jackson film. It was my first opportunity to experience an audiovisual representation of that time and place that was sufficiently "high-fidelity" (or an approximation/hallucination of it, if you prefer) that I really felt a sense of peering through a window in time. That single film helped me appreciate that time period, and how people "back then" were really just like us, more than any film or exhibit I'd seen in all the museums I've ever been to.

That said, if all media were "updated" in such a way, and these modern versions were the exclusive way to consume them, something incredibly important would be lost. I think displays of these modernized recordings would ideally be followed up with the original, warts and all, in order to help viewers appreciate the actual recording media of the period, and to start to bridge the gap in their imaginations and learn how to "see" the reality behind that grainy, jittery, black and white footage.
posted by Nutri-Matic Drinks Synthesizer at 5:21 AM on October 8, 2020 [9 favorites]

When Jackson's film came out the BBC broadcast a making-of documentary which showed the care and attention that went into recreating accurate colours and the soundscape of the film. Jackson owns a huge trove of WW1 memorabilia, so was able to get uniform and equipment colours spot-on. Gunshots were recreated using period weapons. Horse noises were recreated using... um, horses. And so on. It might not have been the exact colours and sounds—maybe the horses were whinnying in a New Zealand accent—but it will have been close. I get the criticism of assigning colours by guesswork in newsreel crowd scenes of peacetime cities, but one of the features of uniforms is that they're uniform.

I'm not a fan of colourised feature films, and don't bother with them, because they ride roughshod over the artistic decisions made by black-and-white-era directors, set designers and cinematographers. But the First World War wasn't some elaborate set-piece staged for the benefit of movie directors. While I agree with Adam Gopnik's point that a film like Jackson's, by catering to our 21st century expectations, doesn't let us experience the footage the same way contemporaries would have, that surely was the point: it was an attempt to bring the Great War into 21st century cinemas and living rooms, so that we could better empathise with those people of a century ago; so that we could feel the impact of those events and places, rather than admire the artistry of those frames.
posted by rory at 6:31 AM on October 8, 2020 [4 favorites]

No amount of upscaling or colourizing can shake my conviction that my parents grew up in black and white.
posted by srboisvert at 7:00 AM on October 8, 2020

While I agree with Adam Gopnik's point that a film like Jackson's, by catering to our 21st century expectations, doesn't let us experience the footage the same way contemporaries would have, that surely was the point: it was an attempt to bring the Great War into 21st century cinemas and living rooms, so that we could better empathise with those people of a century ago; so that we could feel the impact of those events and places, rather than admire the artistry of those frames.

Good point, and on a related note, one thing to bear in mind is that we don't know how the original audiences of Great War newsreels viewed and received them. To us the original images may seem primitive; to the audiences of the time, these were bleeding edge media technologies, probably with very visceral impact. I expect folks in a hundred years time will think our 4K UHD OLED whatevers to be horribly primitive as well.
posted by carter at 7:15 AM on October 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Okay, now I kind of want to shoot footage with a modern video camera, and either downconvert it or strap an black-and-white Super 8 beside it, and put the result of one of these methods beside the modern footage.
posted by RobotHero at 12:22 PM on October 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Actually the point about the sound brings up an interesting thought experiment. If this technique of upscaling and interpolation were available for audio, and instead of hearing early 20thC musicians on mono reproduced from a record with a tiny range, we could ‘hear’ say, Leadbelly, or Robert Johnson, in stereo, with the rest of the bass and instrumentation simulated in—would that help us understand them better?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:17 PM on October 8, 2020

There's an interesting discussion going on about this on r/AskHistorians, with historians, photographers and archivists chiming in. I tend to find the first answer quite convincing.
posted by elgilito at 12:36 AM on October 9, 2020

I hadn't heard of They Shall Not Grow Old, and I watched some. It was really compelling. But Jackson is careful to frame his reconstructions with plain vanilla restored film footage. He shows what he is doing, and the difference between historical record and his re-envisioned clips.

New tech and the threat of Deepfakes has everyone nervous, and I think this is a symptom of that. And rightly so. The creation of fake news and the cult-like followers who believe "alternate facts" are disturbing parts of a new era where spreading information is much easier than verifying it. If the Hundred-Years-War was a direct outcome of the printing press, we're in for a heckuva ride.
posted by rikschell at 6:20 AM on October 9, 2020

This strikes me as an odd argument to have. The original footage doesn't cease to exist because someone else upscales or colorizes it -- the original remains as a historical document for historians to do with as please.

There is a very real benefit, however, to anything that shows us that people who lived at other times are, in some ways, just like us. I loved watching this fixed-up film of a snowball fight filmed in 1886 because of the sense of historical scale it gave me - here's a film of people from 125 years ago, just acting like goofballs and having a good time. You don't get that same sense of connection from the original, which necessarily looks like an "old movie" and thus disconnected from today.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 11:15 AM on October 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

« Older Throne of Games   |   Changing the timeline Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments