History in Action

"Alex," circa 1923, DanaKeller.com
“Alex,” circa 1923, DanaKeller.com

Dear Readers,

I don’t know if you realize this about me, but I like to bum around the internet. A lot.

I think I know what you are thinking: “But Beth, you seem so bright and intelligent and I am sure you have some awesome shiny hair! Why would someone like you kill time on the internet?!”

Truth is, like any millennial worth her salt, I spent most of my formative years among computer-based technology to the ridiculous extent that I’m sure I don’t need a computer science degree to work in IT. Case in point: My previous post (the one that catapulted me into comments and subscriptions from people other than my mother) was written on my phone, while I watched HGTV. Sign of the times, I guess, but color me impressed.

So, like I said, I’m on the internet more than I care to comment on and usually hate myself for it.

However, sometimes in the fog of drunken BuzzFeed binges and Twitter escapades that only serve to loosen my tenuous grip with reality (I follow a lot of television stars), I find something that peeks my intellectual interest to the extent that I no longer feel like a dumb bunny glued to her technological devices. “It’s research,” I tell myself. “It advances my knowledge, expands my mind.” Before long, I return to the old feeling of superiority that comes with “knowing something” and setting myself apart from the usual riff raff one finds in the comment sections on Youtube.

This, of course, happened when, in my internet wanderings, stumbled on the archival scientist and graphic artist, Dana Keller.

Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963, Danakeller.com
Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963, Danakeller.com

Keller’s primary project is taking historical photos and adding color to them, an effort in his words, seeks to “give a little bit of a glimpse into the world as it was from long ago, an opportunity to see perhaps something like what the photographer himself saw through his lens” (danakeller.com/about). This stuck with me as I flipped through Keller’s images.

You see, sometimes I feel so detached from history, it’s hard to look at black and white photos or footage of an era and not think of it as anything but black and white or, on the rare occasion, sepia. My parents grew up in the 40s and 50s and are prone to telling me stories. For me, though they stand in front of me in full color and all their glory, I can hardly imagine them as children with out a fuzzy blend of black, white, and grey. I suppose it has something to do with being disconnected with the past. In a way it’s like how we talk about the fading into history of war and genocide, so that more and more generations can’t connect with how horrible, say, the Holocaust was. Soon, they tell us that the Iraqi war will be just as distant.

Jewish women and children at Auschwitz, circa 1944, Danakeller.com
Jewish women and children at Auschwitz, circa 1944, Danakeller.com

I taught high school seniors about 9/11 in a unit on “The Value of Life” two years in a row and through the course of a year, the event faded from vaguely remembered to completely disconnected. Future generations, I’m sure, will think even less of it. As prophesied by news outlets of the time, conversations about “where we were when the Twin Towers fell” will be just as segregated into older populations as conversations about the day Kennedy was shot.

This is what makes Keller’s work so extraordinary. While it is undeniable that these photos come from a different era, the quality of the images and the inclusion of the color some how solidify what was once lost to the annals of history: reality. Now, we can see how life looked back then, not through the lens of a camera or the likely inaccuracies of Hollywood depiction, but see the world as it could have been seen by the people who lived it, in high def.

Coney Island, New York, circa 1905, Danakeller.com
Coney Island, New York, circa 1905, Danakeller.com

This is why I like going to art and history museums. I like feeling like I can experience artifacts as they were experienced long ago, like I’m breathing the same air as van Gogh or Shakespeare or Vermeer.

But, I’m getting a little too spiritual for my taste. Check out Dana Keller’s website and Facebook page, readers and see for yourself. I’m sure my words don’t do his images justice. 

Yours, etc,

BKJ

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