How obsessive artists colorize old photos

How obsessive artists colorize old photos

August 8, 2019 100 By Peter Engel


You might have seen some of these colorized
photos on the internet. Mark Twain, Amelia Earhart, a young Charlie
Chaplin. It’s incredible how normal these people
look because they’re no longer in black and white. Like they’re someone you could pass by on
the street and not someone unreachable or from another time. What I love about these photos is that they
show people and moments in history that have never been seen in color — except by those
who were actually there. I talked to several artists who do this work
to try to figure out what it is about adding color to photos that seems to make years of
separation fade away. One of those artists is Jordan Lloyd, and
he actually does this for a living. He and his small London-based team at Dynamichrome
use modern technology to digitally reconstruct history’s black and white record. When you’re missing the color, you’re
kind of looking at the entire composition as a whole. Whereas when you add the color you start looking
at the photograph in a slightly different way, and you start picking up all these really
interesting details that you might not have noticed before. This change in perspective is why these images
feel like they’ve suddenly “come to life.” Like, when you see workers from over 80 years
ago wearing blue denim, you instantly see something you can relate to. Colorization makes old photos look more current. But adding color to black and white photos
isn’t new. It’s a practice that is nearly as old as
photography itself. It dates back to the 1800s when images were
colored by hand or through a process called Photochrom, which added anywhere from six
to 15 layers of color to a photo negative. But these didn’t exactly end up looking
super realistic, at least not like this, for example. With digital colorization, the difference
is that software like Photoshop, along with a vast number of online resources, has made
it possible for artists to reconstruct images with far more accuracy. They can turn to historical documents to find
the exact colors that would recreate a moment in time. Sounds simple, right? Yeah, it’s a shitload of work [laughs]. The secret to doing the research for the colorization
is, you now have a wealth of information, it’s just knowing where to look. It means digging through diaries and memoirs,
government records, old advertisements, and even consulting historical experts to be sure
that the colors and styles of the time are faithfully represented. A good colorizer has a good network of people
to call on. We had one guy, he’s like a specialist at
ethnographic dress. You know, he was showing me, like, museum-grade
samples, you know, and he lives and breathes this stuff so, like, every single little detail,
like the color of beads on a Laplander necklace or something, you know, it’s really: “This
has got to be the exact thing.” Take this photo series of Tutankhamun’s
tomb, which was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Jordan colorized these images based on the
archaeologist’s detailed hand-written notes. And by cross-referencing his journals with
restored artifacts on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, he was able to recreate what
that day looked like almost a hundred years ago. Research like this allows colorizers to stay
true to the historical moment. And sometimes a single photograph can reveal
a thing or two about the past. Like, did you know that until the late 60s,
7UP’s logo was red on black, instead of the green we know today? That’s really important to know if you want
to colorize this photo from 1938. And if you wanted to recreate this day in
Paris in 1888, you would need to know that the incomplete Eiffel Tower was painted a
color called “Venetian red.” All right, so how do they actually do it? Essentially, it’s literally taking a graphics
tablet and, you know, literally coloring within the lines. Okay, obviously it isn’t actually that simple. It all starts with the careful repairing of
any cracks and scratches the black and white photo picked up through decades of deterioration
in storage. Once the image has been restored to its original
state, dozens and up to hundreds of layers of color are painstakingly added and blended
together. Human skin alone can have up to 20 layers
of pinks, yellows, greens, reds, and blues to simulate what a living person is supposed
to look like. It can take hours, even days to finish a single
image. I think the longest I’ve spent on an image
is nearly a month. What comes next is pretty interesting, because
even after meticulous research, restoration, and blending of colors, there’s something
that every good colorization artist needs to have: an intuitive understanding of how
light works in the atmosphere. Light affects our perception of color, so
even though research can give you the color information, you’ll need to take into account
how those colors looked under a specific lighting condition. But how can you tell? You can usually tell what the atmospheric
conditions were based on things like shadows, and triangulation of light location, things
like that. For example, this photo was taken in the late
afternoon. Look at the long shadows the people are casting
on the sidewalk. The sun is low, and at this time of day, often
referred to as “the golden hour,” everything is cast in a sort of orange glow, which you
can see in the reflections of this car. Or take a look at this photo of Harry Houdini
from 1912. The cloudy and hazy sky, the soft, almost
invisible shadows, and Houdini’s windswept hair are all strong indicators that this was
a dreary day at the New York docks, which calls for muted colors and a greenish tint. But weather conditions aren’t the only thing
to consider. Reflected light off of certain materials influences
color too. Like the orange glow of molten steel, or light
bouncing up from a blue carpet, for example. These kinds of details are critical to simulating
an environment and achieving true photorealism. I should take a second here to mention that
not everyone is into the work colorization artists are doing. There’s been some pushback, with critics
arguing that these photos should be left untouched. There’s a lot of accusations, not just to
me but to pretty much anyone who does it, which is that, you know, we’re vandalizing
art or fucking up history. And the thing about that is that these things
are not supposed to be substitutes for original documents. It sits alongside the original. But it’s not a substitute; it’s a supplement. Colorization artists are able to create such
high-quality versions of old images because institutions like the Library of Congress
and the US National Archive have carefully digitized and cataloged thousands of original
documents from over a century and a half of photographic history. And since these photos are in the public domain,
they can be altered in any way. Which means that we get to see a color photo
of Abraham Lincoln, blue eyes and all. Beyond the fact that these are really fun
to look at, colorization presents a new perspective on history. It offers a more relatable look at huge moments,
like the construction of the Hoover Dam. And small ones too. You find out all these amazing stories. When you start looking at all the individual
things. What happened to all these companies? What happened to this person, what happened
here? And all of a sudden, you no longer see history
as a linear timeline, but rather it’s a tapestry of all these extremely rich moments. It’s really mind-blowing, actually.