Jordan J. Lloyd

April 13, 2021

🇯🇵 The shokunin mindset

I consider my unintended career in colorization as a craft, despite the wider public’s continued insistence that what I produce is art, or cultural vandalism depending on your perspective. Coming from a background in design, the question of what art is continues to elude me, though I have come to the conclusion that colorizing photographs—an endeavour that has existed for nearly as long as photography has been around—is a craft.

Original photograph by Koto Kyoto on (Unsplash)

This act of visual transformation makes the craft appealing for newcomers, with a relatively low barrier to entry with the aid of YouTube tutorials and the right (often copyrighted) photograph, along with the allure of disproportionate attention to the work–the explosion of new social media accounts devoted to showcasing work commands the attention of millions. Colorizing photographs with sensitivity and nuance, however, requires a great deal of patience and skill. It may be viewed as an occupation that arguably strays closer to the definition of an artisan (‘a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand’) than an artist. Whilst there is an undeniable aesthetic preference embedded in a colorized interpretation of a black and white photograph, I am continually surprised by the end result—it is always different to how I first envisaged an image when I see it for the first time because it is a culmination of many working parts. 

I am sure many people—even practitioners in the field—would disagree with me.

Exact job descriptions are of less importance to me than uncovering the context behind every photograph I work on. I’ll admit now to actually hating the word colorizer, because to me it sounds absurd: getting the proverbial digital crayons out and making it all up as you go along. The title colourist is also misleading in this context because in 2021, it may refer to someone who professionally colours panels in a comic, or it may also refer to someone who colour grades video footage, also known as a digital intermediate. These two jobs are highly specialised occupations with different skill sets in of themselves, and I feel that adding a third category muddies the waters further. One of my friends calls even me a 'colour detective', which is not entirely inaccurate. I personally use the title visual historian, as I feel it is a more accurate representation of my day to day work, the qualifier ‘visual’ making it distinct from the work of historians.

Working with historical documentation requires a deep respect for the source material. Like any good historian, journalist or forensic investigator, much of my working life is preoccupied with answering a series of questions. You start from a place of complete ignorance, before slowly assembling clues to form an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. The result is an interpretation, formed from evidence you have uncovered once you have leaped into the proverbial rabbit hole. You see a photograph for the first time: What’s in it? Who’s in it? Does the sky and shadows tell you something about the time of day, especially if it’s next to a recognisable landmark that still exists? Does adding colour add value to the context? And down you go: finding stock colours of particular cars, clothing and other cultural artefacts of the period.

Original 35mm negative nitrate by Dorothea Lange. Taken July 1939, Gordonton, North Carolina, United States (Library of Congress). Original caption reads, "Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon. Note the kerosene pump on the right and the gasoline pump on the left. Rough, unfinished timber posts have been used as supports for porch roof. Negro men are sitting on the porch. Brother of store owner stands in doorway. Gordonton, North Carolina."
Country Store, 1939, colorized by me. I am saving the full context for this particular photograph for a future book and feature, but a considerable amount of research and hard documentation about this store and its owners was uncovered.
Examples of the colour references obtained during my initial research. The photograph took about a week including the initial round of research.
There are several colorized versions of this famous image by Lange online. The middle photograph is by someone else, and the assumed colours do not resemble the visually more complex contemporaneous example of a sign from the period. The extra research and commitment to observation is the difference between a questionable interpretation and an attempt at a historically authentic result.

Therein lays the power of the modern craft. It is an opportunity to add authentic context and information retrospectively to a genuine historical document when it is executed responsibly. And not just a layer of colour information, but the narratives and stories hidden in plain sight: the rise and fall of companies' products emblazoned across advertisements in the background; cultural fads of the day now half-remembered; occupations and livelihoods that no longer exist as the world has moved on, captured in a fleeting moment in time. Things that neither the photographer or those depicted within would necessarily consider history, because it was simply their present, as they saw it.

Revealing these long forgotten narratives offers a tantalising adjunct to original historical documents sitting in the archives. Such an endeavour requires a mindset that goes beyond an aesthetic preference and technical skill: an ethical stance to respect the source material and add–not subtract–context. The 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi introduced me to the concept of shokunin. Jiro at its heart is not even about sushi, but about dedicating one’s self to a singular occupation. Midway during the documentary, one of Jiro’s assistants regales us with his persistence (and frustration) of spending three or four months making the same tamagoyaki over and over again before obtaining the sushi-master's grudging approval. The epithet Jiro uses to describe his rising apprentice—shokunin—has become a central tenet of my career. But what does it mean? I’ve found one translation for the word by the woodworker Tasio Orate (emphasis mine): 

The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness… The shokunin has a social obligation to work their best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfil the requirement.”
— Tasio Orate

The shokunin mindset embodies all the aspects of the modern craft of colorization, differentiating it from the increasing use of artificial intelligence to colorize a photograph in seconds. Shokunin places an emphasis on human input and a social responsibility to add to collective knowledge, just like any responsible historian, archivist or conservator. A well colorized photograph can offer a historically authentic result (with all its added context), acting as a supplement to sit alongside the original. It can be a powerful aid to help viewers reconcile the abstraction of decades; the technology used to achieve the results should be viewed as a tool to aid the effort, rather than a substitute for the process itself.

I will explore the complex questions of ethics and the results of technology in future posts, along with addressing the valid concerns of the craft's detractors. This question of legitimacy in the craft has long been besieged from unscrupulous actors, content aggregators and sloppy journalism, and it is time these questions are addressed as the modern craft matures.

Colorization is not a fad. As the sustained public interest of millions demonstrates, it is not going away, but it is in danger of being perceived as nothing more than a trivial hobby rather than a valid line of genuine historical enquiry. The responsible colorizer has a moral obligation to society to be responsible with the source material.

For me, the shokunin mindset acts as a professional and moral compass, and one that rewards persistence and commitment •

This post is a re-worked version of some thoughts I put up many years ago on Medium. 

About Jordan J. Lloyd

British author, visual historian and Creative Director of Unseen Histories, bringing the past to life for The Times, LIFE and Unsplash.