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They can turn to historical documents to find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): http://dynamichrome.com/
    Mads Madsen (@Madsmadsench): http://www.colorized-history.com/
    Marina Amaral (@marinamaral2): http://www.marinamaral.com/
    Dana Keller (@HistoryInColor): http://www.danarkeller.com/
    Patty Allison (@imbuedwithhues): https://imbuedwithhues.wordpress.com/

    The Paper Time Machine: https://unbound.com/books/paper-time-machine

  2. I always question this whenever see a black and white to colorize

    Do people ACTUALLY see black and white or was the camera black and white only?

  3. Black and white or Colorizing the photos it doesnt matter they are both beautiful people just need to appreaciate new things and respect what others can do.

  4. I don't know whose idea it was to race through all those interesting pictures at the end, but it was a bad idea.

  5. Why is there pushback against coloring these photographs? The subjects of any of the photos were not actually black and white. If anything, those that oppose the coloring of these photos are trying to preserve the tech of that day. If they argue that it ruins the image of the subjects in the photo they're foolish. The subjects were MEANT to be seen in color.

  6. 0:34
    My school has a picture of that hanged on the wall in black and white in the libary, and the thing that I always notice is that the Lunch lady and the women in the picture look exactly similar like a if they were doppelgangers.

  7. Thanks to your work, photos will not only speak but will really come to life. These colored photos are much more appealing and interesting than the black and white version. My compliments …. topwork and about honded year they still talk about you. A real contribution to humanity, meaningful work

  8. You know how printers can take a color image and print it in black and white? Well, do that but in reverse! I am not sure how, i have a vague idea but it's hard to explain. I'll pay the first person to do it like that 100$.

  9. Someone should develop an artificial intelligence algorithm to colorize these pictures. That could be 'relatively easy' to make since you just need to take a color picture, turn it B&W, let the algorithm try, and compare the results back to the true color picture that you actually have as a reference to begin with. You can have gazillions of pictures to use as training. The outcome should be amazing. A tool in which you could just give the machine a hint of what color do you think that things had, and the algorithm will take care of tuning the hue and saturation almost to perfection, if not perfect.

  10. Who else teared up realising that just colour made you relatable to these people who in the past were unreacheable 'objects'

  11. We are like right at the birth of proper colour photography. Decades and decades later our grandchildren will look at our time as 'distant' and 'unreachable' or 'unrelatable'. They will have way better procedures of capturing this beautiful world and the beautiful moments we preserve.

  12. Many if not most of even the "best" colorization projects still look artificial in the end because they don't take into account the fact that we never really see "real" colors in any reproduction. Every color photograph is made onto some sort of particular color film (and different brands of color films look different) or some particular digital color space. So what result are the colorists really trying to achieve? The skin tones still tend to look undercooked and the colors still tend to look tinted. If the colorists tried to reproduce particular color film effects (say, Kodachrome being a famous one) they might have more success making them look absolutely "real." Most colorists don't seem to do that. A lot of them seem very ignorant of color overtones produced by shadows, for example. Anyone can look at most of these photos and immediately tell they were not originally in color.

  13. Been doin' this sort of work since the aldus photostyler days in the early 90s. Painstaking is appropo – but like anything the more you work at it, the easier and quicker you get as you develop workflows. Fleshtones are obviously the most difficult…and hair. You have to be able to visualize the finished image before you start – and work towards that goal.

  14. Anyone know why the shadows look off in these? Like all the coloring and the lighting and whatnot looks amazing but as soon as they get to a part that's in dark shadow it just looks desaturated.

  15. you cannot relate to a black and white photo specially when its old. you ask yourself a lot of question, what was the atmosphere at the moment the picture was taken? etc. But when you bring colour to it, you can instantly picture yourself at that time "so to speak".

  16. Какого хуя заголовок на русском, а говорить он хуй прости как?

  17. Художники раскрашивают? Что-то тут явно лишнее – то ли художник, то ли раскрашивает.

  18. People complain about everything. it's amazing seeing these photos in life like color. I loved seeing King Tut being unearthed.

  19. 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

  20. 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?

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

  22. 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………

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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".

  26. 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

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

  28. 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.

  29. @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

  30. 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

  31. 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".

  32. 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?

  33. 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.

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

  35. 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 )

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

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

  38. 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 .

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