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Retrographic: Transforming Black And White Images Into Colour

Retrographic: Transforming Black And White Images Into Colour  - We speak to Michael D. Carroll about transforming history's iconic images into colour.

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It's difficult to imagine some of the key points in history in full colour. Unless you were there to live through them, it may seem that key events all happened in black and white. Was life in colour before the mid 20th century? Of course, it was, and a new photography book has been released to help bring these images to a new audience in stunning and enlightening colour.

'Retrographic' is the brainchild of Michael D. Carroll, an author and journalist who stumbled across an online community of colourisers both hobbyist and professional. He is keen to point out that the book is very much a group effort. Dedicated research was put into finding the authentic colours to use in the images while preserving respect for the subject and respecting the original black and white photography. 



Watergate: The leader of the free world is forced to resign amid the most notorious political controversy in history. “Richard Nixon Farewell” Photographed by Bob Daugherty outside the White House, Washington DC, on August 9th, 1974. Colourised by Matt Loughrey


The book includes many iconic images, most of which were picked by the colourisers themselves because they elicit a response from the viewer. Michael was able to step in every so often with suggestions of lesser-known works which were still exciting and represented key points in history. "These include wars of the 20th Century, race and Civil Rights in America, the role of women, the disabled, fascism, communism and democracy, and the rise of popular culture. For example, we begin Retrographic with an incredible image of a 99-year-old veteran from the American Revolutionary War taken in the mid-19th Century – a man who helped make American democracy, and our final image is of President Nixon, a man who “unmade” this proud legacy through his actions during the Watergate Scandal," explains Michael.

Of course, when working with these iconic images, copyright plays a big part. Permission was needed to be able to colourise and publish the photos, and Michael says this took up about 50% of the 12 months taken to put the book together. "Copyright is hugely important and we had to ensure that all the original black and white images were used ethically, with either the permission of the copyright holder or in the public domain. We also worked alongside large agencies such as Getty and Associated Press so the work of some of the world’s best photo-journalists have been included. Images like these are important as they make up a huge part of our psychological impression of the past, even if we are not necessarily aware of the exact circumstances under which they were taken," says Michael.

Colorisation can dramatically change the dynamic of an image, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. All the colourists have strong connections to their chosen photos, spending days at a time making sure that every detail of the photo is covered. Some might argue that colouring an image takes away the original emotional connection to the photo, however, Michael thinks otherwise: "There is a tendency for people of the present to look back at history in black and white, which can be highly aesthetic in that black and white makes the subject look pleasing to many people. However, black and white can make the viewer feel detached from the subject. We hope that adding colour breathes life into historical images and reconnects people to those who went before and helps us to understand and empathise with them."


THE FAB-PAW: Two very different worlds collide - just as they are about to become global mega-stars. “The day Ali met the Beatles” from left to right Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Cassius Clay  Photographed on February 18th, 1964 at Miami Beach, Florida, USA, courtesy of Associated Press. Colourised by Matt Loughrey


How are the images in 'Retrographic' created? 

Michael has a bit of background to share on the creation of the images...

Colourists choose their image, then begin the task of researching the authentic colours and applying these to the image, usually with photoshop, like a traditional artist might paint. This sounds simple, however finding the correct colours of the material, taking into account seasons, daylight, location and the history of the moment are huge factors to overcome.

With photoshop, most colourisers will “paint” colours onto the digital black and white using a mouse on a desktop like any other office-based worker or by standing with a tablet mounted on a stand with a stylus pen acting as a brush, like a traditional artist. Different layers of colour are applied to the image; many start with the skin of the subjects, and the foreground, and work towards the background, which is generally left for last.

The depth of field of the original can, therefore, be critical in ensuring the colourisation brings out the composition of the image. Many colourists describe glass plate images from the early 1900’s as being the best to work with, because of the large size of the glass and long exposure times, which produced highly detailed black and white images with excellent depth of field. Interestingly, colourists report that the skin tones of human subjects have hardly any difference in the Photoshop colour setting between people of different racial groups.

During the colourisation process, a fair white male will, for example, have their skin painted in much the same colour as a black female, or a child from the Far East. It is the original tone of the black and white photograph that makes their skin look different in the resulting colourised image. Perhaps, therefore, “skin tone”, rather than “skin colour”, is a more accurate description of the differences of appearance in the organ that human bodies are wrapped up inside.

We know, for example, that if we are colourising an image of the Russian, “Mad Monk” Rasputin of the Romanov Tsar’s court, we can quickly learn his eyes are blue, and they were said by those who met him to have had a hypnotic quality. Choosing the colour blue is therefore straightforward, but we will need to match the colours to the available light in the scene, and we would spend some extra time ensuring his eyes were suitably mesmerising.

However, if we are colourising the paintwork of a Second World War Sherman Tank of the British Eight Army deployed in North Africa in 1941, we should ideally consult regimental records to ensure the colours of the various insignia are correct, because each signal means something different in the military context under which the photograph was taken, and which cannot have been conveyed in the original black and white.

Some colourisers such as Tom Marshall from Photografix spent a huge amount of time looking into historical documents, interviewing people of the time if they are still with us, consulting experts on the subject as a historian would do. Others, like Matt Loughrey, from MyColorfulPast, has taken a digital approach and created an algorithm which reads the tonality of the original and produces a colour pallet which can be used as a guide. If a black and white image was taken of a sports car, for example, this system can be used to verify which colour it would have been originally.


A gust of wind allows us to view Hollywood’s most celebrated actress in her most iconic pose. “Marilyn Monroe poses over the updraft of New York subway grating while in character for the filming of "The Seven Year Itch" in Manhattan on September 15, 1954.” Photographed by Matty Zimmerman. Colourised by Matt Loughrey


How can I learn about colourising my own images?

Michael says: "My advice would be to jump on Facebook and like or follow a few of the excellent groups that are out there. Some of the best talents in this field are members, or administrators of these groups and regularly contribute images and share ideas, techniques, inspire and advise each other in a supportive environment."

Check out the Retrographic Facebook page


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