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 They can turn to historical documents to find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 comments

  • Vox

    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

    Reply
  • A. Inai

    Colouring gave them their humanity back

    Reply
  • Amar Fawwas

    Use dye.

    Reply
  • Michael G

    Wow. I would love to do this for a living. I can definitely use my photography / graphic design background to do this. 🤔

    Reply
  • Michael G

    Also, this is incredible work they are doing. We should display these colorized versions plus the preserved black & whites, both for historical reference.

    Reply
  • proton2020

    in TER net not inerneat

    Reply
  • proton2020

    Actually Not achilli

    Reply
  • LuisXGP

    The left picture in 1:44 is obviously more detailed than the "remastered" at the right, no point of remastering something if you lose 30% of quality in the process.

    Reply
  • Yodele Ladejobi

    this is brilliant

    Reply
  • Tom H

    That is so weird that on the day I watch a Vox video where they explain that 7ups branding used to be red; I watch Mean Streets before for the first time where I notice that the 7up branding is red.
    Very weird that.

    Reply
  • Oliver Watts

    How can you NOT want a more valid picture of history?

    Reply
  • Edward Yang

    To be honest, there's no way to know whether the colorization is "true" or not. People see something that's pleasing and convincing and just make-believe it's true. Great work, but very sad pretense.

    Reply
  • Games Tape

    Impressive

    Reply
  • First Last

    if they could edit my photos too ..
    (i hope i am not the only one thinking this in this serious video)

    Reply
  • Nikkelnine

    Sounds simple right?

    “Yea, it’s a shitload of work”

    Reply
  • Nathan Everest

    Searches for photos of Saturn colourized ends up here at 3AM

    Reply
  • パンパン

    Knowing how much work these artists put into colorizing these photos made me feel blessed to be able to look at them for free

    Reply
  • Loretta P.

    Wow, this is truly amazing.

    Reply
  • Gavin Kerslake

    awesome

    Reply
  • Westbrooke117

    Why do they have better cameras 100 years ago compared to cameras now

    Reply
  • Krypton K&X -personal use-

    I want to see this on videos, frame by frame. Should be awesome!

    Reply
  • Crossover King

    I had to do this in my media arts class and we used adobe photoshop cs6. Its pretty satisfying.

    Reply
  • Jasper [The Kindergarten Quartz Who Could]

    Yeah, but how’d you know the dress was green?

    Reply
  • BFDT

    Regarding the push-back.

    They are not touching the original. They are not destroying anything.

    The only thing that must be maintained is the original in the best preservation possible.

    And then educate the viewer about the context of the original and that of the colourization.

    I LOVE good colourization.

    Reply
  • Gisley Alves

    When you look these colorized photos, it is like you can bring the past to the present time ; you almost can feel what those people were feeling at the moment the photo was taken. I know, it is a lot of work to be done, but the final results are awsome. Why do people have to disagree with almost everything? Those colorized photos are such a nice images to see…🇧🇷

    Reply
  • Liam Vic

    No matter what anyone says about colorization, I’ve never ever seen Abraham Lincoln as a person until I saw that colored photo.

    Reply
  • _Mooche_ [Minecraft]

    iCarly

    Reply
  • Anna Kaczynska

    duzo pracy ale efekty sa wspaniale…gratuluje…

    Reply
  • Joey zucchini

    6:27 how is that kid not wearing oven mitts when holding that pot handle

    Reply
  • Teriqua Jones

    It's a shame that anyone would object to this art. I think it's amazing!

    Reply
  • Tom Barradas

    It's hard work to do properly, but really enjoyable to do. It is true that it's often the necessary research, more so than the actual colorizing work, that makes for the most memorable and impressive results.

    Reply
  • Nikki mealey

    I think it’s absolutely beautiful❤️

    Reply
  • Ursa Major

    I loathe colorized movies because the art of creating a black and white film is unique and critical. Colorized movies detract from the art form.
    However, these still photos give the people a vibrancy and relatable emotional pull for the viewers. Certainly the original photos should be preserved and perhaps always be shown along with the colorized versions to fully appreciate each for their own values. The work these artists are doing is impressive and important in bringing an extra dimension of experience from these old photos. Kudos !

    Reply
  • top of the pops

    the critics are acting like color was invented only recently lol

    Reply
  • Insert Name Here

    The color makes it relatable, connectable, which I think is very important

    Reply
  • rock Nroll

    Did anyone ask their parents if the world used to be in black and white?

    Reply
  • CRUASSAN-FAN

    using modern technology to renostruct…. bruh

    They just adding a second layer in a photoshop, that's it.

    Reply
  • Viverde

    I feel like if the photos are coloured wrong it kind of change the history. They should write down in each coloured photo that it may not represent history accurately. I think they do a great job though

    Reply
  • Neon Flavored

    "Watch obsessive artists destroy historical images in MS paint"

    More accurate

    Reply
  • Denise Virgallito

    He is genius!

    Reply
  • Micheal Tull

    These Colorized versions are truly remarkable. The bring life to the subject and the environment and times they lived it . I applaud the people doing this work.

    Reply
  • Salam Damai

    I think that the photo @ 2:37 purporting to be of Howard Carter, is actually a photograph of his patron: Lord Carnarvon.

    Reply
  • PureNupe1

    I Love the color photos…. it adds realism

    Reply
  • oof oof

    is anyone else wondering if that kid holding the titanic newspaper in that one photo is still alive?

    Reply
  • Agamaz

    pleeeeeeeease colorize Chopin's 1849 photo please

    Reply
  • Matad0rr

    you can make bank doing this

    Reply
  • Mylo Pinto Rizvi

    this makes it seems harder than it is

    Reply
  • Mariame Ben-karoum

    really cool vid

    Reply
  • HRH Princess Rachel Kleypas-Sparrow

    I BELIEVE IF COLOUR WAS AVAILABLE AT THE TIME THE PHOTOGRAPHER WOULD HAVE CHOSEN IT, SO IF ANYTHING IT ENHANCES AND BRINGS HISTORY MORE TO LIFE, INSTEAD OF FEELING SO FAR AWAY. I COLOURISED MY HUSBAND'S MOTHER'S WEDDING PHOTO ON COMPUTER YEARS AGO AND THE BOUQUET WAS THE HARDEST OF ALL. I WANTED TO DO WHAT MY SISTER-IN-LAW DID WITH PAINT ,ONTO COMPUTER. FORTUNATELY WE HAD A PHOTOGRAPH OF THE PICTURE SHE COLOURED , BUT IT LOOKED WRONG.

    SO, I USED THE PHOTO OF A PHOTO , AS MY GUIDE ,BUT MY PALETTE WAS THE ORIGINAL BLACK AND WHITE. THERE WERE TWO PHOTO'S TAKEN. ANYWAY, I LIKE THE COLOUR ON BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS. GOOD JOB!!!

    Reply
  • Code Doc

    Percy Jackson: hold my beer

    Reply
  • Jay Vincent

    Colourised images make the pictures feel more relatable. Whereas people in black and white just feel so… I dunno, like they’re all too serious?

    Reply
  • jin's forehead

    K but David Attenborough was pretty hot

    Reply
  • Berg Ström

    These photos make my heart clench

    Reply
  • Ashton Whelan

    Let’s wait till they can colour black and white videos

    Reply
  • Complete NOMADness

    When I was little I used to think the world was actually black and white. I was about 7 or 8 and I asked my dad "Was the world still black and white when you were little or did it have color yet?" He gave me a strange look then we had a long talk haha!

    Reply
  • EricLehner

    Hello from Canada. This is a TERRIFIC trend.

    Reply
  • Manw Cat

    I don't get why people would push-back against this. This is amazing, it make all of those capture moment in history filled with life.

    Reply
  • oOIII.M.IIIOo

    Destroy history? People lived in a black and white world? The couloring offers, that these things really happened.

    Reply
  • Noob 1001 the Noob

    Simple. RGB

    Reply
  • Noob 1001 the Noob

    0:10 if that kid or the baby live a long life, they may still be alive to tell the tale

    Reply
  • Chandan Sinha

    This is incredibly inspiring! Thanks a lot Vox for bringing such wonderful artists in light.

    Reply
  • John Castano

    Am i trippin or is this man cuttin off

    Reply
  • kevin dhandhukiya

    90's: we will see flying cars in future.

    2020: colourises old b&w photo. And applies b&w filter on coloured posts.

    Btw those artwork is so awesome.

    Reply
  • u2

    Suomi mainittu, torilla tavataan!

    Reply
  • Micah Carey

    Not the best colorizations I've seen!

    Reply
  • Lima Charlie

    I don't get the term "obsessive".

    Reply
  • Bob Stevenson

    If colorizing old images is vandalizing history, then what is making memes out of them?

    Reply
  • TD18

    Indeed colors makes it look more lively.

    Reply
  • rama rambo

    I'm still learning doing this and i tell u its not easy!! Especially in skin tone

    Reply
  • wartem

    Why are they called artists when they are not supposed to add anything themselves, just restore

    Reply
  • Duy Anh Võ

    Vox
    2017 – colorized

    Reply
  • Time Traveler

    You can colorize photos by using Adobe Photoshop. I had done with colorize photos, and it works awesome!

    Reply
  • Arseniy Lytvynenko

    Can you black and white old color photos?

    Reply
  • James B

    2:57 Happy Birthday Adolph 🤣😂😅

    Reply
  • nasser sari

    c'est en colorizant ces gens que ces gens prennent pour moi une dimension de leur vraie existence

    Reply
  • ew

    1:31 What's the song?

    Reply
  • danny55531

    0:11 This looks like a modern 4k picture

    Reply
  • maxie !

    I wonder if they ever get a colour wrong, for example what if they got the colour of someone's clothes wrong?

    Reply
  • Heru- deshet

    This video was recorded in black and white then colorized.

    Reply
  • Peter Lazar

    This really isn't hard to do, just take your black and white photo and put it in photoshop.
    Create a new layer and change the layer type to "Overlay"

    The rest is really just knowing how to use soft vs hard brushes and recognizing which colors to pick via picture study.

    Finally… you'll need time… A LOT of time.

    Reply
  • Sammy 930

    When i see photos from people back then i always think about that this could be me or that someday people will look at pictures of us in their history books😂💭.It feels strange to think about it (in a really uncomfortable way😖)…

    Reply
  • Emmanuel Macron Ah oui oui

    David attenborough was hot

    Reply
  • Rubardo677

    He kinda looks like Avi Kaplan. 😂

    Reply
  • Manish Kumar

    What is hindoo

    Reply
  • Agent 010

    I use photoshop

    Reply
  • Manuel Camelo

    These Artists are Gods !

    Reply
  • felasfer3d

    That what I do is not that hard

    Reply
  • Gavin Does Stuff

    1:12 n-

    Reply
  • ss

    It doesn't matter because these are copies of the original prints then colorised. Given the choice, I prefer black and white and the sepia tones. I don't need color to appreciate the beauty of the image.

    Reply
  • Andrea Vincent

    Amazing but… I'd rather study history in black and white

    Reply
  • Bee Whistler

    Well, I'd have been one of those naysayers because I've seen too many poor examples of it. But the ones seen here show skill and attention to detail that gave them a whole different quality. Seeing as how they aren't meant as substitutes I can give them a pass. It also helps that people tried to add color back then. It's sort of like the way people have gone back to simpler graphics in some video games… some consider it retro and nostalgic but back when we only had simple graphics we wanted only to make them look better.

    Reply
  • LS1056

    I remember seeing WW1 in color and the way it felt, just more connection.

    Reply
  • Nils Han.

    A great Task for AI.

    Reply
  • No light, no water, no late night snacking.

    I went to school for graphic design and we did this all the time and I gotta say. Yeah, it's a lot of work.

    Reply
  • Sophie Pieters

    With the argument that the photos should remain untouched, critics likely mean that it is disrespectful, not that it damages the original (duh)

    Yet I find this incredibly respectful as it allows us to understand that these were people, who lived a complicated life. They laughed, loved, cried and mourned. It allows us to connect with them. I (personally) find it difficult to understand a black and white photo because it seems so surreal, as if it's fiction.

    I'm all for colorizing photos.

    Reply
  • duh

    so talented

    Reply
  • Bendy Fish

    young charlie chaplin looks like the dude who shot up a movie theatre

    Reply
  • Nikos Karavias

    i admire!!!!!

    Reply
  • Robert Laube

    The color takes something away while simultaneously adding something else, however, i think whatever is lost is better than what the color brings. Just my opinion.

    Reply
  • Guy

    Silly Vox color didn't exist back then.

    Reply

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