Colorized Photos Bring Walt Whitman, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller & Mark Twain Back to Life

whitman color

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.

chaplin and keller color

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.)

twain color

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.

goebbels color

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.

burger color

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs of 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan

1923 Pho­to of Claude Mon­et Col­orized: See the Painter in the Same Col­or as His Paint­ings

Mark Twain Writes a Rap­tur­ous Let­ter to Walt Whit­man on the Poet’s 70th Birth­day (1889)

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Reads Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1952)

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.

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Comments (6)
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  • John Mize says:

    Great pho­tos. How­ev­er, I fear that I have become a dinosaur. I pre­fer the orig­i­nal black and white pho­tos in every instance.

  • Dan says:

    Adding col­or to these or any his­toric pho­tos is point­less, self-indul­gent endeav­or.

  • mike says:

    Why ruin old pho­tographs? I don’t see the point of paint­ing by num­bers.

  • Ralph Edward Drake says:

    Well I thought the project brought a lot for younger folks who see the past as an ancient mem­o­ry.… I rather they see it as a peek at some ones yesterday…still vivid in rec­ol­lec­tion

  • c'est la vie says:

    Great works of art. In the Mark Twain pic­ture, he seems espe­cial­ly alive and present. Nev­er seen any­thing like that before. The col­or jumps out, fresh­ens up the ener­gy, livens up the per­son­al­i­ty. Beau­ti­ful art­work.

  • Aru Gupta says:

    Its amaz­ing how with­out col­or, the pho­to­graph from the past lacks, well, col­or! We see the peo­ple, we see the objects, but the col­or is not there. It is this absence of col­or that makes these old pho­tos lose a very impor­tant aspect of the past visu­al infor­ma­tion that is sought to be con­veyed. This absence of col­or seems to affect us in form­ing an opin­ion about the past from see­ing the (mono­chrome) image. It hin­ders in the for­ma­tion of a true per­spec­tive. Our knowl­edge about the past is incom­plete in a cer­tain way. More­over, the absence of col­or in these old pho­tos seems to cre­ate a kind of distance–an arti­fi­cial distance–between the present (in col­or) and the past (with­out col­or). There is a cer­tain sense of “moder­ni­ty” in the col­ored pho­tographs of the present. We seem to think of the peo­ple in the B&W pho­tos as belong­ing to some “old” peri­od and the objects con­tained there­in as “antique.” Per­haps this is due to the asso­ci­a­tions we form in our mind and per­haps I speak only of my own expe­ri­ence. Any­way, my per­son­al view is that with­in the con­text of its own place and time, every per­son or object is “mod­ern.” It is this per­spec­tive that seems to be lost when we view images from pre­vi­ous peri­ods sans col­or. The vivid­ness asso­ci­at­ed with a life that is both real and “new” is miss­ing. Col­oriza­tion of pho­tographs seems to be an excit­ing new way to over­come or at least to com­pen­sate, in some mea­sure, for this loss of “vivid­ness infor­ma­tion” that accom­pa­nies the pho­tographs from the past. Col­oriza­tion may enable one to form a truer per­spec­tive in one’s mind with respect to the peo­ple and objects of the past than if their images were record­ed only in black and white. More­over, col­oriza­tion may enable one to see those peo­ple and those objects in the same way, in the same light that they were seen by their con­tem­po­raries. After all, their con­tem­po­raries did not see them in black and white! There­fore view­ing the old pho­tos in col­orized form may aid us in form­ing a truer opin­ion of what an influ­ence the col­or and charis­ma of these per­son­al­i­ties may have exert­ed on the minds of their con­tem­po­raries. Col­or, after all, is an impor­tant com­po­nent of real­i­ty and we miss this impor­tant sen­so­ry ele­ment in the mono­chromic pho­tographs. Thus restor­ing col­or in old pho­tos through col­oriza­tion helps us to engage with and grasp the past in a bet­ter manner–in a man­ner that is more per­spec­ti­val. It is amaz­ing how “real­is­tic” and “new”, how fresh and vivid old pho­tos look after col­oriza­tion! Take a look at this page:
    See the pho­to of the “hum­ble burg­er flip­per.” That is from 1938! How new! How com­plete in visu­al infor­ma­tion! How vivid! It com­plete­ly bridges the “dis­tance” (of under­stand­ing) between the past and the present.

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