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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Russ­ian His­to­ry & Lit­er­a­ture Come to Life in Won­der­ful­ly Col­orized Por­traits: See Pho­tos of Tol­stoy, Chekhov, the Romanovs & More

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

The Open­ing of King Tut’s Tomb, Shown in Stun­ning Col­orized Pho­tos (1923–5)

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

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