There is something classically beautiful about black-and-white photos. Maybe it’s because we don’t see the world in black and white, so images in black, white, and various tones of grey evoke feelings of another time, of intangibility, of some kind of otherness. According to Photography Vox, when color isn’t present in a photo, it distances “the subject matter from reality.” That’s why many photographers still prefer to shoot in black and white today.
But poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe barely lived in a time where color photography was possible. All of the photographs of the architect of the modern detective story who wrote dark and gothic tales were, naturally, in black and white. Still, those tones are well-suited for Poe, who is best remembered for his stories of burgeoning madness, of being buried alive, of being driven to murder. In the case of photographs of Poe taken in the early to the middle of the 19th century, an obvious feeling of separation comes from the span of time that has passed between his life and ours. But when we see him in color, it’s as if he has time-traveled to meet us in our own time.
A colorized photo of Edgar Allan Poe tells its own story
Edgar Allan Poe’s black-and-white photographs feel compatible with his writings, not only in context but in style. Yet when looking at a color version of “The Raven” writer, he seems much more like our eccentric uncle who is into live-action role-playing than the man who wrote in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” A color photo of Poe invokes his humanity, which is probably more fitting, as the subject matter he wrote about was of some of the most dramatic in human existence: death, loss of love, mystery, murder, and the isolating feeling of slipping into severe mental illness. “I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him,” he wrote in the previously mentioned story.
Poe died at just 40 years old on October 7, 1839. According to Smithsonian Magazine, his cause of death was swelling of the brain, but the reason for that swelling has never been determined. Just weeks before he died, he had a daguerreotype made. Swann Galleries describes the photo as seeming to “portend his premature and lonely death just three weeks later,” calling out Poe’s “deep-set eyes” and “disheveled dress” — as only hindsight can. A recently colorized version of Poe taken in June that same year (pictured above) has a similar quality. There is a sad vacancy in the eyes, under which bags give the impression of a man who hasn’t been sleeping well. Still, his hair looks like he may have just rolled out of bed, making the updated version, unfortunately, intrinsically more relatable.
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