Past Is Prologue Statue

Manipulating Images

One essential technique in the digital historian’s toolkit is the ability to manipulate images to tell a story. In all web design, cropping and resizing images is needed to arrange pages properly. Digital historians need additional techniques particular to their materials. They might need to digitally restore damage to photographs. In other examples, historic content of a website can be reinforced by recolorizing black and white photos. Historic patterns, figures, and engravings can be used to provide interesting design elements to historic websites, but must be properly manipulated.

One of the simplest ways to manipulate images is by cropping. Cropping focuses on particular aspects of an image and removes other, often uninteresting parts. The header image of my portfolio page comes from a much larger image of the "Past is Prologue" statue in front of the National Archives. Here is the original photo, an image from flickr that is in the public domain.

Past is Prologue Statue
Original "Past is Prologue" Statue color photo.

I then cropped the photo to focus on the statue itself.

Past is Prologue Statue
Cropped "Past is Prologue" Statue color photo.

Finally, I used a sepia filter in Adobe Photoshop to make the contemporary image look more “historic” and match the earth tones of my website’s color pallette. I reduced the quality and size of the image so that it would quickly load in browsers as it would be on every one of my portfolio pages.

Past is Prologue Statue
Cropped "Past is Prologue" Statue color photo.


Digital Historians can use other tricks to manipulate images for their use. Engravings are common historical images and these can be adapted for use on the web. I wanted to create a an engraving-style image of the Heurich Brewery for my historic beer consulting website. I took an initial black and white photo of the Heurich Brewery and turned it into a simpler line-drawing with a rose filter.

Christian Heurich Brewering Company
A black and white photograph of the Christian Heurich Brewery in Washington, DC from 1910 and 1926. Original found at the Library of Congress online photo collection.

My workflow started with fixing some plate damage due to its age when the photo digitized by the Library of Congress. Using the spot healer and clone tools, I fixed several sections of damage. Most of the damage was to parts of the roof which I ended up not using. This brings up a best practice- crop first, fix second. No need to spend time fixing digital damage if you won’t enhance your final product. I also applied a photography filter to the image, giving it a vintage rose tint.

Christian Heurich Brewery engraving
Heurich Brewery with interesting architectural details (facade and tower) highlighted. Red filter adds vintage look.
Christian Heurich Brewery engraving with fuzzy border
I used a vignette effect, this can focus the viewers eye on the central aspect of the image and can also help when blending on a colored background of a website or publication.

Recolorizing Photographs

One final tool in the digital historians’ design belt is recolorizing photographs. This can add interest to black and white historic photographs, or just add contrast to certain aspects of a photograph. It’s a very time-consuming process and requires great patience. One of the most effective techniques is to only select what you want to colorize and use low opacity to let the textures of the photograph shine through the color. In Photoshop, the smart lasso can sense the color differences and select along borders. It’s easy to add or subtract from the selection at that point. Save your selection to make it easier to return and edit later.

I chose a photograph of a large billboard ad for Christian Heurich’s Senate Lager. The billboard was located on 14th Street Northwest in Washington, DC and was likely very colorful. I used some of the original colors from Senate labels and other ad campaigns as inspiration for my recolorization.

Ad for Senate Lager on 14th Street
Here's the original photograph from the Library of Congress.
Label for Senate Lager
Here's an example of the label for Senate Lager in color. I used the color picker tool to get the yellows, reds, and blues. Photo is copyright Heurich House Museum, used with permission.
Label for Senate Lager
Here's the recolorized version.