Thursday, October 25, 2007

Errol Morris explains why blue-eyed Wisconsinites tended to look insane in late 19th century photos

Visual History of Photographic Emulsions in Three Steps
A visual history of photographic emulsions in three steps: Nineteenth century photographic emulsions were only sensitive to blue light, producing a look quite a bit like today's ortho film, which is only sensitive to blue and green. The 19th century emulsions turned lipstick black and produced white, washed out skies with little or no cloud detail. Panchromatic black and white film rendered the world in a more natural grayscale. And then, of course, color film was developed.

The limitations of 19th century photographic emulsions affect the way we imagine that time in the past. The effect of blue sensitivity not only darkened red lipstick, but produced another effect in pictures of people, one that was similar to the way it washed out the sky -- anything blue was turned white, or nearly white. Filmmaker Errol Morris comments on this in his fascinating recent series of extended blog posts in the NYT, in which he deconstructs two photographs by 19th century war photographer Roger Fenton (a quest that eventually got him started on his next film project, a film that will be released next year about those iconic Abu Ghraib photos.)
“Too bad, it was a cloudy day. You really can’t see any shadows.”

My friend, the inventor Dennis Purcell, corrected me: “I don’t think it was cloudy. It was a bright, sunny day. Or perhaps cloudy-bright.”

Dennis explained that most 19th century photographic emulsions are blue-sensitive and hence cannot record the sky – overcast, partially cloudy and sunny skies are all overexposed. The sky is a featureless white, but the “whiteness” of the sky is unrelated to the question of whether there are clouds or whether you can see shadows. It was only much later that panchromatic film was developed. (This accounts for what I would call The Wisconsin Death-Trip Effect, after the book by the same name. Scandinavian immigrants in turn-of-the-century Wisconsin might not be insane, but they look insane because their blue eyes are white in the pre-panchromatic emulsions used to produce the photographs.)
Clearly, the reputation of Wisconsin as a state has greatly benefited from the development of panchromatic film...

Want to experiment with making pictures that have a 19th Century look? You can shoot with filters and/or ortho film. Or you can do it quickly in Photoshop by doing what I did above -- use the channel mixer, set for monochrome, to set the red and green channels at 0 percent and really crank up the blue channel. You'll know you're there when the clouds disappear. Add a bit of sepia tone for that antique effect, and you've got it.


Wren said...

Fascinating! I had never heard or read about this effect before. It explains a lot about how photos taken at the turn of the century look. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This is an awesome trick. I'd love to learn more about making photos look old in Photoshop. It sure takes a lot of the work out of tracking down old film. Thanks!