photographic white lies
July 24, 2009 10:53 AM   Subscribe

This might be a wild goose chase. But can anyone help me track down any sort of a technical clue for why a white tint very specifically applied to one part of a photo taken in the 1920s – for the purpose of deliberate deception – would have turned a dark, purplish navy color over time?

I’m assuming the color corruption is due to some type of direct chemical reaction with the photographic paper. It's obvious the white color was painted/applied directly onto the surface of the original black and white print.

But I don’t know where to even start looking for a chemical answer.

I‘ve had access to this doctored and unpublished photo and I’ve looked at it very closely (it’s in a museum archive).

The intention of the hand tinting – and I know it was also done in the 1920s by the same guy who took the original photo -was to cover up the brown skin of a Central American “native” and make it look as if he really had pure white skin.

On the one hand, it's a clumsy deception –because when you tilt the surface of the photo under normal light you can see immediately where some liquid (paint or ink or possibly a light gel) – has been applied only to the area of bare skin of one prominent figure in the foreground. Also, I don't think the photo would have been terribly scientifically convincing even if the white tint had stayed white. On the other hand, it’s very neatly done.

There’s no question the doctored “native warrior” was meant to look as if he was of pale, Scandinavian origin (there’s a saga of fraudulent anthropology which explains the photo).

My feeling is that the photographer didn’t have a clue about any “special” paints or colors you were meant to use. He was just trying to create photographic evidence for his own mad racial theories. (It’s obviously ironic that the “native” he was attempting to transform into a white man in the photo ended up a blue aubergine hue – with a kind of dull bluebottle sheen.)

I was wondering if anyone knows whether any innocently hand tinted photos from the same 1920s era developed the same color corruption problem?
posted by Jody Tresidder to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Generally if you want to lighten some area of an old print you would bleach it. Using an opaque paint or a dye would be an amateur method. That wouldn't necessarily cause any later reaction that I would know of. A poorly fixed print will eventually get purplish over time as the silver starts to oxidize.
posted by JJ86 at 11:06 AM on July 24, 2009

On the one hand, it's a clumsy deception –because when you tilt the surface of the photo under normal light you can see immediately

Perhaps it's like when people paste up things then photocopy them. Sure, the original looks awful, but you were never meant to see the original, just the reproduction. In this case, perhaps it was meant for a newspaper or similar halftoned display. The Times had an interesting blog post about this a few days ago, including a similarly bad "original".
posted by smackfu at 11:06 AM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I remember a fair amount of discussion about really unconvincing touch-ups in one of my library science classes a while back, to the tune of, "They might not convince us now, but that doesn't mean they were so unconvincing back then." I know it sounds ridiculous, but it's a matter of the constantly expanding boundaries of photographic technology, and just as importantly, the public's familiarity with it. Think of how much harder it is to fool people with Photoshopping than it used to be.

So yeah, what smackfu said.
posted by bettafish at 12:09 PM on July 24, 2009

For a chemical photographic guess, I'll just say that silver has a way of turning things purple.
posted by rhizome at 12:32 PM on July 24, 2009

I think you're correct: the retoucher didn't use appropriate tools. When it comes to paint, there are two main ingredients: pigment and binder. Pigment from that period is likely titanium dioxide or lead white. Neither is likely to color shift. My suspicion is that it's the binder or a filler in the paint.

Unfixed or improperly fixed silver prints tend to go brown, not purple.
posted by jdfan at 1:00 PM on July 24, 2009

jdfan said: Unfixed or improperly fixed silver prints tend to go brown, not purple.

Interesting. You'll have to explain that one to some old prints I have.
posted by JJ86 at 1:46 PM on July 24, 2009

Best answer: It's been bleached, this is a pretty common darkroom technique that has a lot of uses. It reduces the density of silver in the print. Basically you develop the print and apply the bleach (I think what I used to use was ferricyanide), but after bleaching you have to re-wash and re-fix to remove any residual silver the bleach has uncovered. Silver that hasn't been fixed properly (or all the way) eventually turns purple.
posted by bradbane at 2:57 PM on July 24, 2009

Response by poster: Bleach - the bastard used bleach!!

I am so very, very grateful to all of you - and especially bradbane and JJ86 .

That answer makes incredible sense (and I never would have got there myself). The photographer/anthropological fraudster was very cunning in many ways but there was no evidence he had special darkroom skills or would have had the first idea about the need to subsequently rewash or refix his doctored print.

I'm somewhat amazed that the idea he might have tried bleach never once crossed my mind. I suppose - with the logic of total ignorance - I vaguely assumed you generally kept bleach away from photos! And so I was hung up on a concept of tints or paint or ink.

On the other hand "my" guy was obsessed with the beauty of whiteness as the sign of higher civilization -so I'd have thought the concept of "bleaching" just might have struck me at some point. But it didn't!

This is brilliant.

Thanks very much indeed.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:15 AM on July 25, 2009

jj86: I'm willing to admit I'm wrong :) My experience, with prints I effed up, was towards brown.
posted by jdfan at 3:49 PM on July 28, 2009

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