When disco pioneer Giorgio Morodoer released a colorized version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – featuring a soundtrack with Billy Squier, Pat Benatar and Adam Ant, no less – film purists everywhere howled with disbelief at how the film’s moody black and white had been turned into Easter egg pinks and blues. It felt like a gimmick and, worse, it just didn’t look real.
Colorization has come a long way since then. In the hands of the right Photoshop wizard -- like artist Dana Keller -- a colorized photograph of, say, the Oklahoma dust bowl or turn-of-the-century Coney Island gives viewers the chill of the uncanny. People and things that have long since departed this world suddenly seem vital and alive. It makes that foreign country called the past feel eerily familiar.
Above is a picture of poet Walt Whitman. His trademark long hair and Karl Marx beard would look right at home in certain corners of Portland. Apart from that, there is both a sensitivity and ferociousness about this picture. Whitman definitely looks like he’s capable of delivering a barbaric yawp. You can see what the picture looked like in its original black and white here.
This photograph of Helen Keller drawing a hand over Charlie Chaplin's face from 1919 looks like it could be a still from an upcoming Oscar bait biopic. In fact the picture was taken in Hollywood while Keller was on one of her speaking tours. (See original here.)
Likewise with this portrait (original here) of Mark Twain. You can almost hear him make some pithy comment like “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.” As you can see from the picture, Twain didn’t take that risk, opting for more of a whiskery scowl.
This picture of Joseph Goebbels (original) staring down a Jewish photographer is simply terrifying. It’s the sort of death stare common among psycho-killers, death row inmates and, apparently, Nazi propaganda ministers.
And this picture of a humble burger flipper from 1938 is so crisp that it looks like it might have been taken yesterday.
If you have an hour to kill, you can see many, many more colorized pics from the past over at Inspire 52.
A big H/T to Natalie W. G. for sending these our way.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his art blog Veeptopus.