Photography Colorization: Bringing History to Life

History isn’t monochrome.

Dana Keller
Carolyn Khoo
Dana Keller

Colorizer Dana Keller is Reddit Famous. Known on subreddit r/ColorizedHistory as the moderator “klassixx”, and across the web as History in Color, Dana Keller breathes new life into black and white photographs of days past. With works featured on BBC and History Channel, he creates a new familiarity with stars and icons, from Audrey Hepburn in her kitchen to Louis Armstrong mid-practice session.

Read on to understand how Dana Keller applies color to shorten the distance between past and present.

Photo Credit: Dana Keller

Dana Keller on Color:

I colorize black and white photographs for many types of projects, including historical documentaries, archival collections, and multimedia. My interest in it began when I had seen a collection of colorized photos online that was receiving a lot of attention for being very realistic. To me, these images, while indeed very carefully and thoughtfully colorized, did not really look true-to-life, but rather more like paintings. They no longer resembled photographs. I had seen many colorizations before, and they have always looked very stylized, or at least it was unmistakable that they had been colorized, as opposed to resembling an actual color photograph.

Having a background in art and several years experience with photography, I began to colorize photos myself and attempted to concentrate more on the subtleties of realistic colors and shading, with the goal of eliminating as much as possible the viewer’s awareness of the fact that the photo was colorized, and to enable the viewer to see it from a new perspective, as if it were actually a color photograph.

I think a big part colorized photo’s popularity now is that there have been some talented artists that have taken colorization to the next level of realism. Typically one might think of a “colorized photo” as being kind of garish and tasteless, with broad one-color strokes with no regard to detail or any attempt at subtlety or nuance. All the attention is usually on the colorization, rather than the photo itself. But a newer generation of colorizers have begun to approach colorizing with a real reverence towards history, using their skills to eliminate the distraction of the “colorization”, ultimately bringing these scenes to life with a natural realism that hopefully connects the viewer to the past in a new way.

Equally as important, there is a great effort in preserving historical authenticity as well, with a lot of painstaking research in order to provide as accurate a depiction as possible.

I think that photographers of long ago would have preferred to use color photography if it had been available. There’s a fundamental familiarity that we have through color images, simply because they are a more accurate representation of the real world. When color is absent in a photograph, we are consequently looking at a filtered image, and we can’t really grasp the reality of the image in the same way as if it had the dimensions of color.

That is not to say that there is anything missing aesthetically in a black and white image; on the contrary, some of the most stunning photographs are in black and white, and color may actually detract from the gravitas present in such photos. But in the very basic sense of accurately portraying the world we live in, color is essential to that relationship.

My work has been featured in several publications and productions, with clients such as History Channel, Major League Baseball, and BBC. I have also been able to work with several agencies from all over the world, assisting with exclusive projects for their archives and historical publications. It is a great joy to be a part of so many unique projects, and it truly is a different experience every time.

Photo Credit: Dana Keller

Two most popular are Audrey Hepburn, and the photo of the girls delivering ice. Audrey Hepburn’s popularity is probably self explanatory, but I would never have expected the ice girls to have become one of the leading favorites online. Images like these that are not necessarily exclusive to client work tend to be most popular as prints and posters.

Most of the photos I colorize are projects for clients, but when I colorize on my own, I usually choose ones that make me wonder what these pieces of history would have looked like in real life. Often times the most interesting are the ones that are slice-of-life images depicting often long forgotten aspects of everyday life. I will mostly find images that are in the public domain, which can be found from several sources like Wikipedia or the Library of Congress.
Most of my work is done through Photoshop, and I use a Wacom tablet. Each photo is unique in its complexity and detail, so the range of time spent on a colorization varies greatly. A “typical” portrait without a lot of elaborate detail (or marks/scratches to be cleaned up) can take a few hours. Scenes with a lot more elements can take several days or a week to complete.

The colors uses of course greatly depend on the subject. Time periods, culture, and context are all variables to be considered. Researching all of these is a project in itself. It’s impossible to say what colors would be considered trending, but one thing that is for certain, is that vibrant colors were present at all points of history, and it is easy to forget that when viewing black and white images.

Since colorizing is done out of a respect for history, it is essential to be as accurate as possible with color selection, which is in fact one of the most challenging aspects to colorizing.

No color information is available in the grey values, so in order to preserve as much authenticity as possible, researching colors is a must. But since it’s of course impossible to research everything, that can only take you so far. It then comes down to some educated guessing. Grey values hint at what the possible colors could be; mix that in with some context clues and historical knowledge, and you can then start to build a realistic portrayal of what the scene could have looked like to the photographer at that moment. The key word there is could. There will always be a significant margin for inaccuracy and some “artistic license”

What are ways in which you think photography colorization influences our perception of history?

I think it can be a very powerful tool. If done well, the addition of color can help “connect” people to history. It can bridge the gap from a seemingly distant event and make it more immediate and relevant. We may not know exactly what colors the subject of an images should be, but when we do build on the existing knowledge of colors in the image we begin to create a more accurate representation of history.

It’s well known that the use of color (and lack of color) is strongly influential in how we respond to the world. Certain colors can evoke excitement and pleasure, while others can bring about sorrow and somberness. Combinations of colors can create complex symphonies of emotions, and what’s amazing is that the very lack of color can do the same, with concentration on contrast and shape. What we perceive in these photos and how we receive them is greatly dependent on how color is used (or not used), and what is revealed (or hidden) with the use of either technique.

In my experience, the overall response to colorization has been very positive. The majority of people tend to see the photographs in a new way when they are colorized, and they express that it does indeed help them to appreciate the events and figures of the past as more relevant.

I had colorized a photo of women and children arriving in Auschwitz, taken probably hours before their deaths. The feedback was overwhelming, in that so many people expressed that the image had made the Holocaust events feel so much more real to them, as these figures of that tragedy became more familiar as real living people.

Colorization Case Study:

Art and design already play an important role through the curation of archival collections with how materials are represented and how they engage the public. In the archives, colorization can be considered another facet of that presentation. As mentioned above, colorization can help “connect” people to history; it can bridge the gap from a distant event and make it feel as immediate and relevant as it was when the photo was taken. This effectiveness can be used to engage different communities and generate interest. For example, a historical society, which was in the process of converting an old train station into a museum, commissioned me to colorize a photo of the building. They felt that the colorized image would allow greater opportunity for people to connect and feel the relevance of this historic place in their community, and would thus help generate funding for the project. Of course, being a historical society, they wanted to be as accurate as possible in the coloring process. In order to achieve this, they were able to take color samples from the base layer of paint on the building, which had been painted over many times through the years. By providing the data for the colors, we were able to color the image with a great deal more accuracy. So in practice, if we can build up the image with as much existing knowledge of colors as possible, often times using the archives own resources, we can then perhaps begin to create, theoretically, a more accurate—albeit of course artificial—representation of history. This can be a strong publicity tool, used to help tell the story of the images, giving people a unique and different way to connect to photographic collections.

Seeing color is seeing one of the many complex ways that light interacts with the world. Even though an object can be considered to be one color, such as a red shirt or a green leaf, in reality, nothing is just one solid color. Aside from all of the textures and matter making up these objects, the atmosphere of lighting will play tricks on you as well. Depending on the color temperature, (e.g. time of day, or sunlight vs. incandescent light), something that you understand as “red” may actually be reaching your eyes as a blue or purple. Color is a dynamic dimension that alters, complicates, and enhances our perspective of the world.

With black and white photos, people tend to feel distant and disconnected from the real and vibrant world those photos are actually portraying. And why shouldn’t they? The world was never in black and white, and it’s not something we are used to seeing in day to day reality.

By adding color to these photos, it makes them seem that much more familiar. The viewer is brought a little closer to the reality in which they were taken. The reason these colorizations exist is to give the viewer an opportunity to see an image from history with a different perspective, a chance to connect to an increasingly distant, but still very real past, with real people who lived real lives. This reveals the power of color and how it is so influential to our emotions and moods.

What is your favorite color and why?

Dana Keller: Ironically, I really like very dark greys (around 85%). I don’t really know why. But one of my favorite actual colors is a dark rich red, like a redder mahogany or cherry wood. Those colors feel heavy and smooth and warm.

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