How obsessive artists colorize old photos

How obsessive artists colorize old photos

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 They can turn to historical documents to find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.

100 Replies to “How obsessive artists colorize old photos

  1. You can find more photos on the artists' pages. Check them out:

    Jordan Lloyd (@jordanjlloydhq):
    Mads Madsen (@Madsmadsench):
    Marina Amaral (@marinamaral2):
    Dana Keller (@HistoryInColor):
    Patty Allison (@imbuedwithhues):

    The Paper Time Machine:

  2. This work is simple compared to what went into the 'World War II In Color' TV series. But I guess the research wouldn't need to be so broad for war

  3. How do they determine which colours to use? Do they just pick whichever they think looks good or do they do some sort of research?

  4. the guy literally create a time machine and someone says he destroy history/art from the original photos.

  5. Very neat stuff. I have a lot off respect for those that can do this. I am just getting into editing images, just the basics so far. But it looks like there is a pretty steep learning curve to getting it all down, I just hope I can slowly climb it, and get to the point that I can create great images as well………

  6. Color provides so much more detail. I can still look at a black and white picture and say wow, looks like this was taken just today. Color just adds more detail, sometimes reveals things such as discerning shadow from mud, dye from non dyed clothing, various types of metals, materials stand out.
    It simply provides more detail.

  7. Those accusers can f off. I was instantly attracted to those colored pictures, I felt very close to them, very connected to them. I had never felt this before watching old pictures. Just like you said black and white pictures felt like pictures of another world, something I didn't see as my own but the colored ones made me feel at home.

  8. Pretty sweet gig. Rewarding as well. Pretty sure the people of the past wish the historic moments they were part of were in color and found it disappointing when they saw the photos. It's the same as watching old highlights of rookie Michael Jordan before there was HD. Ask him if he wants those clips to remain all fuzzy and original. Pretty sure it would be, "no".

  9. Now you know what ora like when we artist paint A PORTRAIT OR A LANDSCAPE OR ANYTHING!! YOU TAKE FOR GRANTED THAT WE DO THIS EVERY TIME WE MAKE A PAINTING! We painters need to take all these things into consideration when making a painting look real

  10. Colorizing the picture give another dimensions to it, but most pictures are way too much saturated and gives the pictures unnatural looking.

  11. I love this. It is totally way more relatable when seeing the coloured image and I think that’s really important. It had an effect on me in a way that made the past feel less further away, and I feel more connected to the people in the coloured images. That’s a wonderful outcome so kudos to the technical artists. The limitations on technology at the time shouldn’t cause us to think we shouldn’t use the technology we have today to see what was seen with the human eye back then.

  12. @2:35 that’s kinda true but not exactly Howard Carter Found the vicinity but in actuality Hussein Abdel Rasoul A.K.A. The water boy was the one who found the first step to King Tuts Tomb when he was digging holes to place his water jugs to stand upright

  13. it's amazing how so many of the colourized photos suddenly made me laugh. it just tore down a wall and gave it a sense of intimacy, like someone could have taken a photo just like this today using their phone. It makes these photos more special because it makes the scenes they show less "special" and "historic" and more like a casual picture from a distant time

  14. O verbo colorar está mal conjugado. O correto seria "Artistas que coloram…". "Colorem" é o conjuntivo (subjuntivo) que estaria correto na frase "Talvez eles colorem estas fotos".

  15. I don't understand people who criticise work like this, if you want something to complain about there are many things worth your time and attention, this isn't one of them, it's amazing the effort put in and it makes us feel closer to history, what could possibly be bad about that?

  16. I don't mind colorization I think it makes events in the past seem more current. It is not vandalism because the original material is not being tampered with. As long as the originals are left alone then color all you want.

  17. I wonder if that the same color of their dress or you have to use use your imagination to put color on their dress?

  18. Really interesting I appreciate the art of doing this … but I like the original B&W . Seem more period correct. Adding color makes it look newer ( if that makes sense )

  19. This is art at its best! Photos were always meant to have color but the limitations at the time prevented it.

  20. Can someone please tell me, does the colors actually the original one or they just throw it in there randomly?

  21. I would like to have possibilities to colorized my parents photos, I have just few of them , for me those photos are all my visible memories about them and with years going pass I’m worrying that I will lose them to .

  22. Wow, I totally thought they added color by knowing what shade of grey or white the color is shown on a black and white photo. Not far fetched but it’s way more complicated than previously thought.

  23. i loved every single image, it really does make me feel like i've seen someone like them on the street or something… i hope they keep doing it and uploading images. i love it!!!!

  24. This is awesome, it’s like, you’d think back then everything was actually black, but when you see these, it’s more like today. It’s awesome. It’s like another world.

  25. I have seen an actual old color photos that looked very much like these recolors. Sometimes you cannot tell.

  26. Haven't pressed play yet…was just having a convo with the homie Randy out in L.A about 4 color seperators and photography…pressing play

  27. Arguments can be made for and against colourization. I think the colourized versions give more context for certain age groups. Those of us who grew up with both the real thing and b&w photos can make the leap in our minds. However, that does not mean that the artists are not contributing to modern understanding of history. B&W tends to make things feel less real to the modern world that has grown up with everything in colour. Not to forget that we have been fed colourized photos, deep space telescopic pictures, for years.

  28. it's weird seeing old photos colorised. it feels like the picture wasn't taken that much of a long time ago. it's like technicolour, you're distracted by the colours in the film and you automatically think it's a new film when in reality it could've been made in the 1960s. it's like we treat people back thenlike items on display but when we see them in colour, we think "they were normal people, living an ordinary life and they never knew they would be in history books. they were people, just living in more jolly times." i don't think i could handle living in the 1930s or 40s. Well yes, it sounds lovely but i would be too curious about the future that i would never get to see. it's sad to think most of these people are dead, but I'm so jealous they got to experience those times!

  29. For me, seeing the past in colours is really hard to imagine as most of the pictures are black and white. Knowing that these people who do this, well do this makes it more amazing and interesting. Colouring the photos make such a big difference

  30. As for early, actual color photography, we have the Albert Kahn autochromes. They bring us closer to those days. However, I think the book, The Dawn of the Color Photograph by David Okuefuna and the BBC doc were never promoted stateside because there's little of American interest. For one thing, I was hoping for a team picture of the Athletics or Giants. Even from Europe, I was hoping for pictures of old Le Havre. Neither on the Musee de Albert Kahn website. Will have to settle for a convincing colorization.

  31. Why anyone argues that adding color to a black and white photo is a bad thing is beyond me. A photo devoid of color creates a stark separation of past and present and (for me at least) makes it harder for us to really relate to and understand that past. Color brings it all into focus and bridges that gap in my mind. It makes the people or objects in the photo real because that’s the way we actually see it. We don’t live in a Black and White world now and neither did they.

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