Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: The Civil War In Color

By John C Guntzelman

Colorizing photographs has been around nearly as long as photography itself.  In efforts to transcend the limits of their medium early photographers would often hand tint their photographs with a broad use of various artistic techniques and tools.  Some were more successful than others, but I think it’s fair to say, no improvement made then, to the black and white, gray, and sepia toned images, rendered anything close to the lifelike photographic quality that we of the 21st century are accustomed to today.  The vibrant colors of today’s real life keep the gray and sepia monochromatic toned photographs of one hundred and fifty years ago at a removed distance from their modern day viewers.

As an experienced cinematographer John C. Guntzelman has merged his knowledge of 21st century photographic technology and his passion for the American Civil War and created “The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Reenactment of the War Between the States,” a coffee table sized book of colorized images from the Civil War.

Having carefully colorized some of the most iconic images from America’s greatest conflict, Mr. Guntzelman has resurrected them from the dusty and murky past and gives them a reality and an immediacy that they have never had before.  The colorized photograph of Alexander Gardener’s February 5th, 1865 portrait of Abraham Lincoln (on page 24) looks as if he were sitting for the portrait today, and gives him a humanity that is somewhat removed from the original photograph.

Guntzelman’s colorizations are, however, somewhat hit-and-miss.  The blue uniforms in portraits of Union Generals in the front of the book, such as Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, Philip Sheridan seem to be too much of a vibrant blue.  Others of the colorized photographs, such as the group photographed with Union General Rufus Ingalls (page 132) have a nearly Technicolor look to them While other pictures such as Company E of the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment (on pages 56 & 57) look like they could have been taken with a modern digital camera.  By and large, however, the application of color to these photographs is nothing less than stunning.

The pictures of the dead on the battlefield, for the most part, I feel are not enhanced much by the addition of color.  Though in their day they were frightening to those who viewed them, by today’s standards they are a bit sterile.  The grizzly, disfiguring, bloody, mortal wounds were often not photographed in detail.  When the dead were photographed it was often from a little bit of a distance.  Colorizing these photographs does lend an air of humanity to the dead, but with the exception of the picture of the Federal soldiers killed near McPherson’s Woods at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 (page 213) the gruesome and goriness of war is not palpable to today’s modern viewers.  This is not the fault of Mr. Guntzelman, but rather of the Civil War photographers and photographs themselves.

ISBN 978-1402790812, Sterling, © 2012, Hardcover, Dimensions 10.6 x 11.2 x 1.1 inches, 256 pages, Photographs, References, Picture Credits & Index. $35.00.  To Purchas the book click HERE.

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