Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Breathing New Life into Civil War Imagery with Color

General Joseph E Johnston, CSA

The American Civil War, thanks to Matthew Brady and the advent of the wet plate process of capturing images, was the first war to be documented by the camera lens.  Every student of history should be grateful for Brady's efforts, often at great peril to himself, to capture individuals and moments from that time forever.

The process of capturing an image in the 19th century was painstaking and painful.  Subjects had to remain still while the exposure was captured.  Plates were fragile and susceptible to damage from any number of sources of which light was probably the least concern.  Imagine driving a horse drawn carriage filled full of plates of glass and jars of chemicals through rural 19th century America during a war.  It's a miracle that we have many of these images at all.

Brady was a master photographer.  His composition, lighting, and subject evince profound technical, and artistic talents.  And yet, he was limited by the technical restrictions of the day.

Our efforts to connect with his subjects are often frustrated by one simple and yet glaring omission:  Color.

For some time now on Reddit, a group of artists has sought to revivify old photos by imbuing them with color.  They research every aspect of the subject and strive for utmost historical accuracy.  The results are spectacular.

Click to see full size image
For example, consider the side by side comparison of the black and white image of Major General Darius N. Douch with the color image above.  The addition of color brings the subject into our modern visual parlance.  Suddenly, this is no longer an image in a history book, but a living person.

The above image is perhaps an even more shocking demonstration of the extent to which color brings the subject to life.  The individual above, minus the shackles, could appear in any contemporary media ad campaign—think Calvin Klein, Banana Republic, etc.  But in fact this is Lewis Powell, one of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination.  Powell's assigned part in the plot was to kill Secretary of State William Seward.  He stabbed Seward numerous times in his home and left him permanently disfigured but was subsequently captured and hanged along with Mary Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt.

Here are a few more of what I consider to be the most compelling works of Mads Madsen ("zuzahin" on Reddit) and Jordan Lloyd.  Click on the images to view the detailed, full size versions.  And see the bottom of the article for where you can follow these artists and enjoy their work.  All colorized images below are copyright of Mads Madsen, Jordan Lloyd, or their respective owners.

James A. Garfield, future President of the United States, as a Brigadier General
Colonel Alex Hayes, KIA 1864 during the Wilderness Campaign
John A. Dahlgren
Major General George Armstrong Custer
Major General Joseph Anthony Mower (of "Mower's Charge" at Bentonville fame)
Major General Ambrose Burnside
View from the Capitol at Nashville, Tennessee, 1864 (color version by Sanna Dullaway)
To see more of these artists' incredible work, visit:

Colorized History Reddit Forum — Includes images from WW1, WW2, miscellaneous historical events, popular culture, etc.

American Civil War Colorized Reddit Forum —Mads Madsen's subreddit dedicated to colorized versions of Civil War imagery

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