The Controversial Art of Colourising the Past

Look at the colour that's been added to the photo above. What do you see?

Is it the past brought to life - or the blasphemous work of a historical revisionist?

Do you feel more connected to a time gone by - or do you find the colour distracting from the story the photo is trying to tell?

The lost art of photo colourisation is seeing a modern revival, and while some are ecstatic about the chance to see history in a brand new way, others are none too pleased to see history painted over.

Reactions vary from disgust and horror - the sort of feeling someone might have if lipstick were to be painted onto Michelangelo's David - to seeing colourised photos as a more visceral, relatable link to the past, and an art form in its own right.

The practice of photo colourisation has been around for over 175 years - but even in its heyday, colourisation had rabid supporters and detractors.

As early as the late 1800's when customers were clambering over themselves to buy colour images, some photographers were already decrying how colourisation robbed the photo of its truth; a supposedly talentless medium that lacked creativity and undermined the work of the original artist.

If we want to really understand the controversy, motivations and underlying story of photo colourising, we need to revisit its past.

Jordan J Lloyd
Talent Showcase: Jordan J. Lloyd, Dynamichrome.com
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The first splashes of colour...

In the beginning, the world was black and white. At least, that's how it looked in photographs.

Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of photography

But from the moment the first photo was snapped by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 from his estate in France, photographers began experimenting with ways to try and bring true-to-life colour into the frame.

It was in 1839 that the world's first publically announced photographic process, the daguerreotype (named after French artist Louis Daguerre), began coming into widespread use.

That same year, a Swiss painter and printmaker named Johann Baptist Isenring went to work hand-colouring the photos using a process that involved tracing the image onto a see-through surface, creating a different stencil for each different colour to be applied and then sprinkling a mixture of gym arabic and pigments onto the daguerreotype and affixing them with heat. His are the earliest attributable hand-coloured daguerreotypes on record.

A mere three years after Daguerre brought his invention public, Benjamin R. Stevens and Lemuel Morse of Massachusetts were granted the first American patent for hand-colouring daguerreotypes.

Because photographs themselves were already exorbitantly expensive, owning coloured photographs quickly became a status symbol and coloured daguerreotypes were a coveted item for those wealthy enough to afford them.

When photographers first started colouring photos, their goal was realism - not art.

That said, with the ability to alter the realism came the dilemma of retouching and editing photos from the original; hand-tinting (painting over top of the photo so as not to obscure the base) and over-painting (painting in a way such that the original photo cannot be seen) were also used a bit like a modern-day Photoshop to eliminate undesirable elements of the picture and “enhance” reality.

Little changed with photo colourising until 1850, when what might be considered hand-colouring's first real controversy got rumbling.

A 'hillotype' of a colored engraving, by Levi Hill

An American minister named Levi Hill raised eyebrows when he claimed he had invented a process for colourising photos he dubbed “heliochromy”. Photographers were irate, dismissing Hill as a liar who was tinting his photos by hand, but enough people bought into his story that demand for hand-coloured photos dropped sharply in anticipation of this new, easy process.

Hill teased the world with his claims until 1856, when began selling a book that promised to reveal his secrets, all for the king's ransom of $25 (which at the time was unheard of). As it turned out, his process was so chemically hazardous it was practically unworkable. Hill was written off as a fraud (perhaps undeservedly, according to the Smithsonian), and progress lumbered forward.

Then, in 1861, the first colour photo made its debut.

James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish mathematical physicist, produced the first stable colour photo without hand-colouring when he snapped a photo (or more accurately, three photos) of a tartan ribbon and arranged them on a projector. Though far from perfect, this snapshot produced by a three-colour process (shots were taken through red, blue and green filters) marked the first time colour was added without human intervention.

Curiously, his work was quickly forgotten until almost 30 years later.

Meanwhile, hand-colouring was getting big in Japan.

While Maxwell was trying to naturalize the colourising process, the work of hand-colouring photographs had spread from Europe into Japan where it became a popular and respected art form.

Yokoyama Matsusaburō

A pioneering photographer in Japan named Yokoyama Matsusaburō used his training as a painter and lithographer to create shashin abura-e (写真油絵) or “photographic oil paintings”. The process worked by cutting away the paper support of the photo and applying pigment to the emulsion with a drying oil.

The images were purchased as iconic souvenirs and continued to be produced for another century after.

The invention and popularization of tintype in the 1860's started to make photographs affordable for the general public.

Tintypes could be coloured by any variety of methods: Oil-based paints, crayons, pastels and even coloured chalk (though watercolour painting became impossible). Hand-colouring really began to take off - so much so that photographers in the USA scrambled to employ “colourisers”, primarily women.

From here, techniques began to greatly vary. As paper prints came into popularity, the “crayon portrait” was born. Whether using crayons, pastels, charcoal or coloured pencils, prints would be blown up to life-size and coloured in, producing a result more akin to a modern painting than a photo.

The public was enamoured with colourised photos and wanted to learn to do it themselves. So many people wrote into art and photography journals inquiring about hand-colourisation that in 1879, Art Amateur published a series of detailed articles on the tools, processes and tricks of the trade.

The golden age of colourised photography had arrived.

From 1900 and 1940, colourisation flourished as photos were bought as gifts, souvenirs and personal mementos. From 1904 to 1939, Wallace Nutting, another minister (this time from New England) would go on to become the best-selling hand-coloured photographer of all time.

In 1907, the first widely accepted natural colour photographic process came when the autochrome was invented, but it wasn't until the 1950's that colour film became commercially viable.

Suddenly, hand-colourisation in the USA and much of Europe all but stopped.

It survived in poor countries where colour film was rare, expensive or unavailable, and throughout the 60's hand-coloured photos were sold as antiques and novelty items to a much smaller demographic. There was a bit of a revival in the 70's as the world fell in love with hand-colouring again, but things would never be quite the same - which brings us to today.

Mads Madsen
Talent Showcase: Mads Madsen, Colourised History (Reddit).
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Photo Colourisation in the 21st Century

How has photo-colourisation changed hundreds of years after the original photos were taken, and what does the process look like today?

To find out, we talked with three of the reknowned colourisers behind the remarkable work seen on the likes of Buzzfeed and ThoughtCatalogue: Jordan J Lloyd of Dynamichrome.com , Wayne Degan of Metacolor.org, and Mads Madsen, a colouriser who also runs the incredibly popular Colourised History subreddit.

For starters, the tools of the trade are far superior. While oil paintings, dyes, watercolours and other hands-on mediums remain niche artistic endeavours, technology has supplied faster, more accurate ways of recapturing colour.

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«A decent machine is worth the investment, as is a graphics tablet. If you don't have one and want to do this as a profession, then make the investment. I use an Apple iMac with a Wacom Intuos Pro Medium tablet, and once you get used to it, the speed at which you can add masks is phenomenal; which is handy as many images will have hundreds of individual masks.»

Wayne Degan Wayne Degan

«My work is done with a digital pen and tablet setup, currently using a “Wacom Intuos Pro” Pen Tablet. All of my work is done in Adobe Photoshop CC and dual Samsung monitors.»

Mads Madsen Mads Madsen

«Most of us use Photoshop - I use CS6 with a Wacom Bamboo tablet. That being said, there are many examples of people using Gimp, or Paint.net - whatever you use, it's all about the technique, rather than the program.»

Colourisers spend hours perfecting their approach, but the heart of the process is actually relatively simple.

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«I liken colourisation to the game of Chess. Simple to pick up but extremely difficult to master and I have a very long way to go. The basic formula in its variations is straightforward: just keep adding layers of colour onto the black and white image, and mask it off 'between the lines'. That's it. The more colour variation you add, the more 'real' the final image is perceived to a point (then you're hitting diminishing returns).

In fact, if you were to write a book on the topic, one could summarise the technique (using a bitmap editor like Adobe Photoshop) in a paragraph. The rest of the book however, is the preparation and post-colourisation techniques that many of us are still experimenting and formulating all the time.»

Mads Madsen Mads Madsen

«I've spent 2 years fine-tuning my process to where I can comfortably and confidently speed through it, but I always start out getting the skin out of the way. If there's 5-10 people, the faces and hands and what-not always gets coloured first, then I do the clothes.

After that, I can get a feeling for how the background should look, if I don't have references at hand. If it's a standard outdoor scene, finding references is kind of pointless when it's just a plane of grass - but knowing the season helps tremendously with the historical accuracy.

Once that's all coloured in, the real work begins. Here is where the biggest 'trick of the trade' comes in - light. Nothing is more important than noticing how light interacts with elements in your picture. Light can do tons of things to a picture, and if you don't account for them, your photograph will come out looking... not 'wrong', but just off you know?

Our brains are quick to notice the uncanny-valley effect in images, and it's a big perpetrator in badly done images.

The above should illustrate what I am talking about. The first image has no blue added to the 'cold' side of his face (The one facing away from the light), and it's, as a result, very saturated.

The second image has blue added to simulate shadow both in the folds of the leather, his cap, and his face. It adds a level of realism that many people forget. This also plays in on sunny days outside, how people's faces and clothes look in the shadows and in the sun, as well as cars, streets, buildings, and a plethora of other things.

It all comes down to taking a hell of a lot of care of your subjects and what they're exposed to.»

But while the tools have made it easier (and less messy) to account for the many shades and nuances of a photo, there's a lot more to colourisation than digitized brushes, filters and layers of colour.

Keeping it all convincing is an enormous undertaking that requires thorough research and meticulous attention to detail.

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«Once you have the tools required, then a lot of your time will be spent doing preparation. A good quality black and white restoration is required and there are whole books out there just on this topic, so be prepared to do that.

Your quality of research is the thing that stands out the most, in my opinion, rather than a 'style'. I can recognise the work of other prolific colourisers, but they know what they're doing in terms of getting their research together.

Furthermore, try and understand why the original photographer took this image. What is the underlying narrative, what is important? This will determine a good shot to add colour to, but remember: you're enhancing and supplementing, not replacing, the original.»

The importance of detailed research is echoed by Degan.

Wayne Degan Wayne Degan

«Accuracy and attention to detail is what has made me really stand out amongst my peers. Colourising a photo can be extremely tedious when there are a great number of details in the photo. The photo of Audrey Hepburn shopping with her pet deer took me almost nine hours to complete due to the large number of items on the shelves. I also do a large amount of research before working with a photo to be as accurate as possible for that time era.»

To the frustration of colourisers and anger of their critics, even with all of that research, accuracy can never be completely assured - part of why the controversy surrounding the practice exists in the first place.

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«Accuracy is an ideal, not an end goal in colourisation. Unless you could go back in time like Bill & Ted and take a reference shot yourself, there's absolutely no way you can achieve historical accuracy. Instead, finding historically accurate colour references gives credibility to the image you're working on by evoking a sense of genuine authenticity, and the better your research, the better your end result.

Finding colour references and general research still constitutes the longest and most laborious part of the process. I have a priority system for finding colour references, and a good colouriser will use any and all means necessary to find the top tier of colour references which of course is, the artefact itself. Failing that, a restored copy or reproduction - and failing that, an artefact of the same group, brand, period, and so on.

The real fun of colourisation is the element of forensic research you're forced to do if you want to do it well, combined with a flair for Holmesian deduction. Yes you make educated guesses much of the time, but those guesses are informed by a laborious level of research into the visual and historical context of the photograph. To that end I will outdo myself when I can and you eventually do things like:

  • E-mail historical experts and distributors of independent soda;
  • 3D model certain elements of an image and match the shadow intensity of an image to determine the behaviours of colour in that lighting scenario;
  • Use satellite imagery to determine general climatic conditions;
  • Trawl through hundreds of hand-written inventory notes and compare them to a restored artefact, before ageing said artefact in the photograph before its restoration.

If people find this pretentious or overkill, then they're missing the point, because Winston Churchill wasn't ever photographed wearing a bright purple jacket.»

Madsen agrees - accuracy is always the goal, but sometimes, it's not possible to know with certainty whether the scene has been recaptured identical to the way it was taken.

Mads Madsen Mads Madsen

«I can't ensure 100% accuracy as I wasn't there. I have images where I'm 90% sure it's all well and good, but there's still that afterthought when I'm finished. I can't ever be completely accurate, nobody really can, unless they take a true colour image and remove the colour, and re-add it.

I strive to be as accurate as possible and I get discouraged when I'm not able to find a specific reference, so oftentimes I shelve a project until I can find the missing piece of the puzzle.»

Artists and historians - or thieves and liars?

Despite all that talk of research and process, the question remains: Should colourisers even be doing this? Is it right to add colour to the past, even when accuracy isn't 100% assured?

Colourisers themselves are quick to point out that theirs is a labour of love; an act of reverence that was never meant to be taken as an attempt to replace or improve upon the originals.

Lloyd has his share of critics, and it's obvious that he's spent time reviewing some of the harsh feedback from those who would rather see history left untampered with.

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«What I find interesting is the vitriol our critics voice in various comments sections online. Their basic argument is we have no respect for the source material and that we are ruining a piece of art, or trying to replace the original with an inferior derivative.»

Lloyd points out that much of colourisation has to do with the laborious and meticulous process of restoring old photos before they can even be worked on - an endeavour that takes deep respect for the source material.

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«Any good colouriser worth their salt knows the addition of colour is most probably the most straightforward part in a much longer process. Chief amongst these is actually restoring the black and white image to begin with. I don't buy the argument that a monochrome image is art when it has signs of deterioration due to poor storage; it certainly isn't what the original photographer would've wanted in 99.99% of cases.

When restoration goes into digital reconstruction which does happen on occasion, it is a tremendously laborious and skilful process to achieve a satisfactory result, but we do it anyway. So in fact, there are two versions of an image: the restored black and white image, and the version with added colour.

The fact we do restore the image speaks volumes of the respect we have for the source material. Further, none of us ever claimed that our versions were superior to the original, merely different and trying to offer something to supplement a far superior original.»

And because their work will inevitably be judged on how it looks in comparison to the original, colourisers understand that so much comes down to how well-executed their end product is.

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«We are judged by the lowest common denominator. There are some poor colourisations out there (just like everything else) and until you see a few from different colourisers, it's hard to tell the difference between poor, good, and excellent; but I can categorically state that no colouriser I've ever talked to doesn't intend to get better.

In my opinion, the highest compliment a colouriser can receive with regard to their skill is when an image is so good it becomes unremarkable until its pointed out that it was a monochrome image to begin with.

It's like CGI effects: The trick is to enhance, not substitute the experience. When people complain about poor CGI in films for example, what they really mean is when it is done without the required skill, or when it completely takes over from the narrative. [But] I've seen hundreds of shots where 80% of the background elements are CGI and you would never, ever know.»

That sentiment is echoed by Madsen, who is frustrated by the perception that colourisers are haphazardly filling in the blanks on a whim.

Mads Madsen Mads Madsen

«The most common misconceptions about this craft is that every artist who partakes simply just sees it as an adult colouring book.

Those of us who do it for a living don't see it that way, and we take it very seriously. Myself and others will spend hours researching to find just a single item in an image because it was the one thing we couldn't, with 100% certainty, know to be accurate. We want to be as precise as possible [...], I know as an up-and-coming historian that it's a near-death sin to intentionally alter history.»

Wayne Degan of metacolor.org sums it up simply:

Wayne Degan Wayne Degan

«My work is never a “better” version, more of a tribute to the photos that I enjoy.»

It's odd, in a way, that we've grown to hold the old black and white images so near and dear in their original forms - especially given that since the advent of the photograph there's been a long history of trying to bring colour back into the picture.

Mads Madsen Mads Madsen

«If we go back to the roots of photography and the process I'm emulating today, we see that [in the past it was widely praised and was briefly seen as something of a 'must have' in the upper classes, as well as the lower and middle classes.

Having such a lavishly hand-coloured ambrotype or daguerreotype was seen as a status symbol, while the tintype with just rosy cheeks and gold added to jewellery was the thing most commonly seen in most households.»

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«Given the technology available at the time, many photographers simply had no choice, and colour film wasn't widely available until the 1950's -whereas black and white camera technology was at its peak.»

Mads Madsen
Talent Showcase: Wayne Degan, Metacolor.org.
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The Limits of Art

There certainly seem to be cases where colour would ruin the original intent of the work. There are those like Ansel Adams, who praised black and white imagery and would be remiss to see his careful compositions fundamentally violated by attempts to add colour.

Similarly, Harold Baquet (a current photographer) deliberately eliminates colour in his images. «[It's the] less is more thing,» he explains. «Sometimes, colour distracts from the essential subject. Sometimes, the light, line and form is enough, and it allows you to explore the sculptural qualities of that third dimension, that illusional dimension of depth.»

There are important differences between artistic intent and technological limitation - a line that can be hard to draw. After all, past photographers would've known the limitations they were working with and shot their photos accordingly.

Lloyd believes making the call on whether or not to colour a photo is a matter of ethics.

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«I have a rule: if the image was taken in black and white for artistic purposes and that was the intent of the original creator, then I'll avoid it unless it's for personal practice or a clearly stated objective. When images are taken for editorial purposes or historical prosperity in black and white, then it's fair game.»

But that doesn't mean he's comfortable with the original being shuffled to the bottom or lost in translation. In fact, like Lloyd, most colourisers would prefer their work to be shown with proper context and credit given to the original shots, where possible.

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«I can empathise with the critics' position - and the reason for this is because of how the images are presented online.

In a lot of cases, there's absolutely no context whatsoever. Accreditation to the original photographer, a comparison between the black and white version and a narrative and historical context are all originally supplied at source (certainly by me, anyway) - but all of that is stripped out when it's posted, then reposted and reposted again.

The internet is a game of “telephone” sometimes, and I spend a lot of my time writing to websites to get proper accreditation and links to more information.»

Is it possible that those who hate colourisation do so partly because it violates their understanding of history and tradition?

Perhaps we've come to love the old black and white photos and resist seeing them altered because, in a sense, our view of the past is black and white as well.

It's tempting to believe in a manufactured version of the “good ol' days”, where life was simple and the world was easier to understand. Seeing those bygone eras streaked with modern colour is jarring and uncomfortable - even if those who were there at the time would have celebrated the ability to bring new hues to their snapshots.

Despite the negativity of a few dissenters, all of those interviewed said most of the feedback the artists receive is positive and comes from those who are able to appreciate the photos in a new and personal way.

Jordan J Lloyd Jordan J Lloyd

«People are enamoured with well colourised image because it makes an abstract concept, 'the bygone era in black and white', and renders it into a concept we all understand: well defined colour. I've heard my own work described as a “visceral experience” or “relatable”. As one colouriser put it on his website, “We don't live in a black & white world, neither did they!”»

Mads Madsen Mads Madsen

«Many people don't know that colour photography dates as far back as the craft of photography itself. When you see these events you've seen in history books previously in lavish, saturated colour, it suddenly turns that view upside down. We're not [inherently] trained to recognize objects in black and white, but seeing these images in colour completely negates that and we're suddenly able to connect with that photograph. We feel as if we're there with those people, experiencing it.»

Whether you see photo colourisation as a link to the past or a crime against art, it's impossible not to appreciate the passion, energy, skill and diligence that goes into the work of a professional. Perhaps the best part of any of this is that conversations about our collective histories are being revived instead of forgotten, treasured in ways both old and new.

Our Expert Contributors

Jordan J Lloyd

Jordan J Lloyd is a colour restoration expert who works for Dynamichrome.

Mads Madsen

Mads Madsen is from Denmark, and is currently studying for a Masters degree in History, and intends to study for a PhD. He lives in Horsens, and runs the popular Colourised History subreddit.

Wayne Degan

Wayne Degan is a writer, musician and full time nerd who loves to restore and colorize old photos. Wayne currently resides in Bangor, Maine, and blogs at Metacolor.org.