How Obsessive Artists Colorize Old Photographs & Restore the True Colors of the Past

The art of hand-coloring or tinting black and white photographs has been around, the Vox video above explains, since the earliest days of photography itself. “But these didn’t end up looking super realistic,” at least not next to their modern counterparts, created with computers. Digital colorization “has made it possible for artists to reconstruct images with far more accuracy.”

Accuracy, you say? How is it possible to reconstruct color arrangements from the past when they have only been preserved in black and white? Well, this requires research. “You now have a wealth of information,” says Jordan Lloyd, a master digital colorist. “It’s just knowing where to look.”

Historical advertisements, diaries, documents, and the assessments of historians and ethnographers, among other resources, provide enough data for a realistic approximation. Some conjecture is involved, but when you see the amount of research that goes into determining the colors of the past, you will most surely be impressed.

This isn’t playing with filters and settings in Photoshop until the images look good—it’s using software to recreate what scholarship uncovers, the kind of digging that turns up important historical facts such as the original red-on-black logo of 7Up, or the fact that the Eiffel tower was painted a color called “Venetian red” during its construction.

Unless we know this color history, we might be inclined to think colorized photographs that get it right are wrong. However, the aim of modern colorizers is not only to make the past seem more immediate to us in the present; they also attempt to restore the colors people saw when photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries were taken.

The software may not dictate color, but it still plays an indispensable role in how alive digitally colorized photographs appear. Colorizers first use it to remove blemishes, scratches, and the signs of age. Then they blend hundreds of layers of colors. It’s a little like making a digital oil painting. Human skin can have up to 20 layers of colors, ranging from pinks, to yellows, to blues.

Without “an intuitive understanding of how light works in the atmosphere,” however, these artists would fail to persuade us. Color is produced by light, as we know, and light is conditioned by levels of artificial and natural light blending in a space, by atmospheric conditions and time of day. Different surfaces reflect light differently. Correctly interpreting these conditions in a monochromatic photograph is the key to “achieving photorealism.”

Critics of colorization treat it like a form of vandalism, but as Lloyd points out, the process is not meant to substitute for the original artifacts, but to supplement them. The colorized photos we see in the video and at the links below are of images in the public domain, available to use and reuse for any purpose. Colorization artists have found their purpose in making the past seem far less like a distant country.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Dorothea Lange Shot, Migrant Mother, Perhaps the Most Iconic Photo in American History

When we visualize the Great Depression, we think first of one woman: Native American migrant worker Florence Owens Thompson. Few of us know her name, though nearly all of us know her face. For that we have another woman to thank: the photographer Dorothea Lange who during the Depression was working for the United States federal government, specifically the Farm Security Administration, on "a project that would involve documenting poor rural workers in a propaganda effort to elicit political support for government aid."

That's how Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, puts it in a video essay on Lange's famous 1936 photo of ThompsonMigrant Mother. (For best results, view the video below on a phone or tablet rather than on a standard computer screen.) Reaching the migrant workers' camp in Nipomo, California where Thompson and her children were staying toward the end of another long day of photography, Lange at first passed it by.

Only about twenty miles later did she decide to turn the car around and see what material the 2,500 to 3,500 "pea pickers" there might offer. She stayed only ten minutes, but in that time captured what Puschak calls the photograph that "came to define the Depression in the American consciousness" — it even heads the Great Depression's Wikipedia page — and "became the archetypal image of struggling families in any era."

Over time, Migrant Mother has also become "one of the most iconic pictures in the history of photography." But Lange didn't get it right away: it was actually the sixth portrait she took of Thompson, each one more powerful (and more able to "evoke sympathy from voters that would translate into political support") than the last. Puschak takes us through each of these, marking the changes in composition that led to the photograph we can all call to mind immediately. "A lesser photographer would have milked the children's faces for their sympathetic potential," for instance, but having them turn away "communicates that message of family" without "taking away from the central face, or the eyes, which seem at last to let down their guard as they search the distance and worry."

These and other actively made choices (including the removal of Thompson's distracting left thumb in the darkroom) mean that "there is very little spontaneous in this iconic image of so-called documentary photography," but "whether that diminishes its power is up to you. For me, being able to actually see the steps of Lange's craft enhances her work." Whatever Lange's process, the product defined an era, and upon publication convinced the government to send 20,000 pounds of food to Nipomo — though by that point Thompson herself, who ultimately succeeded in providing for her family and lived to the age of 80, had moved on.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Getty Digital Archive Expands to 135,000 Free Images: Download High Resolution Scans of Paintings, Sculptures, Photographs & Much Much More

J. Paul Getty was not a billionaire known for his generosity. But since his death, the Getty Trust and complex of Getty museums in L.A. have carried forth in a more magnanimous spirit, ostensibly adhering to values that transcend their founder: “service, philanthropy, teaching, and access.”

A collection first gathered for private investment and consumption (sometimes under a cloud of scandal) has expanded into galleries that millions pass through every year; a Conservation Institute dedicated to preserving the world’s art; and a Research Institute proclaiming a social mission: a devotion to expanding “our knowledge of the history of art, of all countries, of all languages,” according to its director Thomas Gaehtgens, who also says, “a society without art cannot really survive.”

Put another way, as one of the Getty’s art market competitors was once quoted as saying, “They just want people to like them.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but if you are an art lover—and not a billionaire art collector—you may genuinely appreciate this quality. And you may like them even more now that their open access digital collections have almost doubled to 135,000 high-resolution images since we last checked in with them five years ago.

Like the Getty museum, it reflects its founder's tastes in Classical, Neo-Classical, and Renaissance art. Download Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi (top), for example, at the highest resolution (8557 X 6559) and get closer to a virtual version than you ever could to the real thing. Learn the painting’s provenance and exhibition history, read an informative description and a bibliography. The painting is one of hundreds from European masters and their lesser-known apprentices. You’ll also find several hundred images of sculpture, both classical and modern—like Paul Gaugin’s sandalwood Head with Horns, above—as well as drawings, manuscripts, pottery, jewelry, coins, decorative arts, and much more.

But the bulk of the digital collection consists of photographs, with 112,261 images and counting in the archive. The Getty has “assembled the finest and most comprehensive corpus of photographs on the West Coast” in its photography collection (not to be confused with Getty’s son’s media empire), with “substantial holdings by some of the most significant masters of the 20th century.” The collection is also “particularly rich in works dating from the time of photography’s invention” and its development in the mid-19th century.

Download and study Dorothea Lange’s desolate Abandoned Dust Bowl Home. Or journey back to the early days of the medium, when gentleman amateurs like Scottish nobleman Ronald Ruthven Leslie-Melville took up photography as an avid pursuit, and documented the landscapes, architecture, and personages of their age. (See Ruthven-Melville’s 1860's photograph Roehampton below.)

Like all digital collections, the Getty’s cannot replicate the experience of seeing physical works of art in person, but it does magnanimously expand access to thousands of images usually hidden from the public, as well as thousands of pieces currently on display in one of its many museums. Completely free, the online archive serves as an invaluable teaching and learning tool, a vast repository preserving international art history online.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Free: Download Thousands of Ottoman-Era Photographs That Have Been Digitized and Put Online

“Turkey is a geographical and cultural bridge between the east and the west,” writes Istanbul University’s Gönül Bakay. This was so long before Constantinople became Istanbul, but after the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the region took on a particular significance for Christian Europe. “The Turk” became a threatening and exotic figure in the European imagination, “shaped by a considerable body of literature, stretching from Christopher Marlowe to Thomas Carlyle.” Images of Ottoman Turkey were long drawn from a “mixture of fact, fantasy and fear.”

With the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, those images were supplemented, illustrated, and countered by prints depicting Turkish people both in everyday life circumstances and in Orientalist poses.

In the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, as modernization took hold all over Europe, viewers might encounter photos of women in poses reminiscent of the Odalisque and street scenes of bustling, cosmopolitan Constantinople, with signs in Ottoman Turkish, English, French, Armenian, and Greek.

Photos of Enver Pashade facto ruler of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and “highest-ranking perpetrator of the Armenian genocide,” writes Isotta Poggi at the Getty’s blog—circulated alongside images like that below, a group of Turkish tourists posed near the Sphinx. These and thousands more such photographs of Ottoman Turkey at the turn of the century and into the first years of the Turkish Republic—3,750 digitized images in total—are now available to view and download at the Getty Research Institute.

The photos come from French collector Pierre de Gigord, who acquired them during his many travels through Turkey in the 1980s. They were taken by photographers, some of whose names are lost to history, from all over Europe and the Mediterranean, including Armenian photographers who played a “central role,” notes Poggi, “in shaping Turkey’s national cultural history and collective memory.” (Read artist Hande Sever’s Getty essay on this subject here.) The huge collection contains “landmark architecture, urban and natural landscape, archeological sites of millennia-old civilizations, and the bustling life of the diverse people who lived over 100 years ago.”

Despite the loss of materiality in the transfer to digital, a loss of “formatting, or sense of scale” that changes the way we experience these photos, they “enable us to learn about the past,” writes Poggi, “seeing Turkey’s diverse society” as photography’s early viewers did, and to better understand the present, "observing how certain sites and people, as well as social or political issues, have evolved yet still remain the same.” Enter the Pierre de Gigord collection at the Getty here.

via Hyperallergic/The Getty

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Earthrise, Apollo 8’s Photo of Earth from Space, Turns 50: Download the Iconic Photograph from NASA

Just a little over fifty years ago, we didn't know what Earth looked like from space. Or rather, we had a decent idea what it looked like, but no clear color images of the sight existed. 2001: A Space Odyssey presented a particularly striking vision of Earth from space in the spring of 1968, but it used visual effects and imagination (both to a still-impressive degree) to do so. Only on Christmas Eve of that year would Earth be genuinely photographed from that kind of distance, captured with a Hasselblad by Bill Anders, lunar module pilot of NASA's Apollo 8 mission.

"Two days later, the film was processed," writes The Washington Post's Christian Davenport, "and NASA released photo number 68-H-1401 to the public with a news release that said: "This view of the rising earth greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the moon after the lunar orbit insertion burn."

The image, called Earthrise, went "as viral as anything could in 1968, a time that saw all sorts of photographs leave their mark on the national consciousness, most of them scars." Life magazine ran it with lines from U.S. poet laureate James Dickey: "Behold/ The blue planet steeped in its dream/ Of reality."

It's often said of iconic photographs that they make their viewers see their subjects in a new way, an effect Earthrise must exemplify more clearly than any other picture. "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring," said Apollo 8 command module pilot Jim Lovell at the time, "and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth." At the recent celebration of the mission's 50th anniversary at the Washington National Cathedral, Anders remembered, "As I looked down at the Earth, which is about the size of your fist at arm’s length, I’m thinking this is not a very big place. Why can’t we get along?"

You can download Earthrise from NASA's web site and learn more about the taking of the photo from the video above, made for its 45th anniversary. Using all available data on the mission, including audio recordings of the astronauts themselves, the video precisely re-creates the circumstances under which Anders shot Earthrise, forever preserving a view made possible by a roll of the spacecraft executed by Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman. To what extent their photographic achievement has convinced us all to get along remains debatable, but has humanity, since the day after Christmas 1968, ever thought about its blue planet in quite the same way as before?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Artificial Intelligence Creates Realistic Photos of People, None of Whom Actually Exist

Each day in the 2010s, it seems, brings another startling development in the field of artificial intelligence — a field widely written off not all that long ago as a dead end. But now AI looks just as alive as the people you see in these photographs, despite the fact that none of them have ever lived, and it's questionable whether we can even call the images that depict them "photographs" at all. All of them come, in fact, as products of a state-of-the-art generative adversarial network, a type of artificial intelligence algorithm that pits multiple neural networks against each other in a kind of machine-learning match.

These neural networks have, it seems, competed their way to generating images of fabricated human faces that genuine humans have trouble distinguishing from images of the real deal. Their architecture, described in a paper by the Nvidia researchers who developed it, "leads to an automatically learned, unsupervised separation of high-level attributes (e.g., pose and identity when trained on human faces) and stochastic variation in the generated images (e.g., freckles, hair), and it enables intuitive, scale-specific control of the synthesis." What they've come up with, in other words, has made it not just more possible than ever to create fake faces, but made those faces more customizable than ever as well.

"Of course, the ability to create realistic AI faces raises troubling questions. (Not least of all, how long until stock photo models go out of work?)" writes James Vincent at The Verge. "Experts have been raising the alarm for the past couple of years about how AI fakery might impact society. These tools could be used for misinformation and propaganda and might erode public trust in pictorial evidence, a trend that could damage the justice system as well as politics."


But still, "you can’t doctor any image in any way you like with the same fidelity. There are also serious constraints when it comes to expertise and time. It took Nvidia’s researchers a week training their model on eight Tesla GPUs to create these faces."

Though "a running battle between AI fakery and image authentication for decades to come" seems inevitable, the current ability of computers to create plausible faces certainly fascinates, especially when compared to their ability just four years ago, the hazy black-and-white fruits of which appear just above. Put that against the grid of faces at the top of the post, which shows how Nvidia's system can combine the features of the faces on one axis with the features on the other, and you'll get a sense of the technological acceleration involved. Such a process could well be used, for example, to give you a sense of what your future children might look like. But how long until it puts convincing visions of moving, speaking, even thinking human beings before our eyes?

via Petapixel

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Impossibly Cool Album Covers of Blue Note Records: Meet the Creative Team Behind These Iconic Designs

If you stepped into a record store in the 1950s and 60s, you would likely be drawn almost immediately to a Blue Note release—whether or not you were a fan of jazz or had heard of the artist or even the label. “If you went to those record stores,” says Estelle Caswell in the Vox Earworm video above, “it probably wasn’t the sound of Blue Note that immediately caught your attention. It was their album covers.”

Now those designs are hallowed jazz iconography, with their “bold typography, two tone photography, and minimal graphic design.” Of course, it should go without saying that the sound of Blue Note is as distinctive and essential as its look, thanks to its founders’ musical vision, the faultless ear of producer and engineer Rudy Van Gelder, and the roster of unbelievably great musicians the label recruited and recorded.

But back to those covers….

“Their bold use of color, intimate photography, and meticulously placed typography came to define the look of jazz” in the hard bop era, and thus, defined the look of cool, a “refined sophistication” vibrating with restless, sultry, smoky, classy, moody energy. The rat pack had nothing on Blue Note. Their covers “have today become an epitome of graphic hip,” writes Robin Kinross at Eye magazine. (And lest we fetishize the covers at the expense of their contents, Kinross makes sure to add that they “are no more than the visible manifestation of an organic whole.”)

Flip over any one of those beautifully-designed Blue Note records from, say, 1955 to 65, the label’s peak years, and you’ll find two names credited for almost all of their designs: photographer Francis Wolff and graphic designer Reid Miles. Wolff, says producer and Blue Note archivist Michael Cuscuna in the Earworm video, shot almost every Blue Note session from “the minute he arrived.”

“One of the most impressive, and shocking things” about Wolff’s photo shoots, “was that the average success rate of those photos was really extraordinary. He was like the jazz artist of photography in that he could nail it immediately.” Once Wolff filled a contact sheet with great shots, it next came to Miles to select the perfect one—and the perfect crop—for the album cover. These saturated portraits turned Blue Note artists into immortal heroes of hip.

But Reid’s experiments with typography, “inspired by the ever present Swiss lettering style that defined 20th century graphic design,” notes Vox, provided such an important element that the lettering sometimes edged out the photography, such as in the cover of Joe Henderson’s In ‘n Out, which features only a tiny portrait of the artist in the upper left-hand corner, nestled in the dot of a lower-case “i.”

Miles pushed the exclamation point to absurd lengths on Jackie McLean’s It’s Time, which again relegates the artist’s photo to a tiny square in the corner while the rest of the cover is taken up with bold, black “!!!!!!!!!!!”s over a white background. It’s “startlingly getting your attention,” Cuscuna comments. On Lou Donaldson’s Sunny Side Up, Miles dispenses with photography altogether, for a striking black and white design that makes the title seem like it might up and float away.

But Miles' type-centric covers, though excellent, are not what we usually associate with the classic Blue Note look. The synthesis of Wolff’s impeccable photographic instincts and Miles’ surgically keen eye for framing, color, and composition combined to give us the pensive, mysterious Coltrane on Blue Train, the impossibly cool Sonny Rollins on the cover of Newk’s Time, the totally, wildly in-the-moment Art Blakey on The Big Beat, and so, so many more.

Reid Miles had the rare talent only the best art directors possess, says Cuscuna: the ability to “create a look for a record that was highly individual but also that fit into a stream that gave the label a look.” Learn more about his work with Wolff in Robin Kinross’s essay, see many more classic Blue Note album covers here, and make sure to listen to the music behind all that brilliant graphic design in this huge, streaming discography of Blue Note recordings.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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