The art of colourising old photographs

Of late there has been a huge upswing in the trend towards ‘colourising’ old monochrome photos. Adding colour to monochrome isn’t new, of course – there was a whole industry devoted to ‘hand tinting’ back in the day. It was done to give people the feel of being there. Special oil paints were manufactured for this purpose. They also came in suitable grey tones to touch up monochrome prints. These days Photoshop does the job, and there’s a growing range of ‘AI’ software that automates the colourising process. Sort of.

The problem, of course, is that we don’t know the precise colours of the day. We have a good idea, obviously – I mean, grass is usually likely to be green. But the literal shades aren’t known. So a colourised photo is not literally what the scene of the day showed. Yet it is still worth doing, I think. To me, a colourised photo has an emotional value. Nobody expects it to be literally correct. Instead, it’s done – as hand-tinting was back in the day – to create a feeling, to allow us to better identify emotionally with the subject, getting a better sense of what it would have been like in the moment. We know the colours aren’t literally those of the scene, but the feeling they evoke is still valid, and this is meaningful to us.

Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ epitomised colourisation , working over old WW1 footage and adding sound for what one review described as ‘heart-breaking immediacy’. I have colleagues who worked directly with him on some of his historical projects.

In short – and providing we understand that it’s not a literal truth, colourising becomes a useful way to help us emotionally engage with the past, adding a dimension to the way we see history. After all, back in the day people didn’t see things in grainy black-and-white, did they? In this sense, colourising is the same as an artist producing a painting. By nature, the artist cannot literally reproduce the scene, nor is that the intention: they try, instead, to create a mood through use of colour, composition and style. The epitome of this approach, for me, remains the impressionists: Monet, particularly, captured ‘light’ via the interplay of colour to create emotions in his viewers. To do this he represented scenes as daubed paint, intentionally colour-shifted and lacking close detail. Was he a rubbish artist because he didn’t literally paint what he saw in accurate detail? Of course not.

Claude Monet’s famous ‘Sunrise’ of 1872, showing Le Havre harbour. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In point of fact, this issue of the colour not being objectively true applies to any colour photograph, both from the days of film-and-print and digitally. The earliest colour photography used the Autochrome process developed in 1904-07 by the Lumiere brothers, which was based on potato starch. In 1908 the editor of Photography magazine, R. Child Bayley, declared that these images could capture the ‘colours of Nature’ in ‘a most startlingly truthful way’. Actually, they couldn’t. Autochromes, by nature, ‘blued’ the colours: a yellow filter helped distort them back the other way, but they still weren’t objectively accurate.

This is an autochrome from 1913, the top of Shortland Street, Auckland, New Zealand by Robert Walrond. (A.018201, collection of Te Papa). It’s clear from the sky alone that the colours weren’t literally correct.

On my own experience, you can’t match what the human eye sees even with today’s technology – and the art of photography, in any case, is to add emotional meaning by controlling how the light influences the colour of a scene, even adding filters to ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ the palette. That’s quite apart from the issue of colour-matching, which is challenging to achieve either in physical printing or on a monitor. In short, the colour in colour photographs isn’t objectively correct, either. For instance, here’s a photo I took of Napier’s Pacific Beach with my Canon 70D DSLR using a polarising filter at a very specific light angle. It’s untouched, aside from my watermark, yet the colours are far more saturated and tilted towards the red than those I saw with my own eyes. Chances are also high that the way your monitor represents them differs from the way mine does. In point of fact, I was deliberately trying to get a warm saturation via light angle and polarising, to capture the mood of the later afternoon sun on the beach I used to kick around on as a kid.

Photo I took of Napier’s Pacific Beach on a glorious late afternoon in November 2021.

I mention all this at some length because I made the point on a social media site, briefly, about colourisation having similar function to that of an artist. For this I was instantly abused by an enthusiast who informed me how ‘dangerous’ my views were. To him, old paintings were objective truth, whereas I was apparently advocating a fantasy addition to old photographs, which was wrong and proved how ignorant and (wait for it) ‘dangerous’ I was. I didn’t bother engaging. One cannot explain concepts to people who flat refuse to accept the basic principles.

What do you think about the art of colourising photographs?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022


7 thoughts on “The art of colourising old photographs

  1. I think anything of that nature qualifies as art, even the simple taking of a picture as you have noted. Good for you for not engaging in a dialogue with the other person, they are unreachable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The guy later stalked me and derogatory comments about my entire body of work on at least one public site. I hesitate to dignify such behaviour with engagement, but it was pretty clearly intended to damage. It’s sad: issues such as colourisation are well worth discussing – and the issue IS a discussion.


  2. I’m a terrible photographer, but I can relate to the discussion about light and colour because I play with both all the time in Corel. Whatever the medium, we’re trying to achieve an illusion that’s both graphic and emotional, so how can it be anything but subjective? And then there’s the viewer’s side of the equation. What does a person who is colour blind actually get out of a photo or a painting or some other coloured graphic? At a philosophical level, how do we truly know that any of us see the same thing when we look at a scene?
    It’s a fascinating subject and one of the reasons I don’t consider homo sapiens to be a complete waste of oxygen…mostly. 😀

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    1. It’s all about evoking emotion, by whatever means. I have a friend who’s an artist who is incredibly good at that side of it. I focused on photography (see what I did there?) because there are amoeba on Saturn that can draw better than I can – and for me the learning journey into the art of photography has been a lot of fun. I don’t do a lot these days as writing’s taken precedence, but the thinking feeds into the writing too – another form of art, even in the non-fiction I do.

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      1. I’m no artist either, but Corel is something I’m very familiar with whereas cameras just make me incredibly frustrated. I can /see/ things, but do you think I can capture them on film [or digitally?]
        Totally agree that both photography and writing are an art form. Both create images that fire the imagination. That is an art all by itself. 🙂

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  3. Any reproduction of reality is our interpretation of reality. I take pictures all the time and then have to make adjustments because it wasn’t what I saw. Be it a sketch, painting, deguerreotype, or photograph, it’s all art. Not only do we choose how the finished product appears, but we also choose how to reproduce the subject. After all, what we choose to include in the frame influences the outcome. I took a photo of a deer lying in the grass the other day. It appears a shot of a deer in a meadow. In truth, it was a deer in someone’s yard in town.

    Original photographs are invaluable for no other reason than they’re original. Colorized interpretations of those photographs are also valid because they become new interpretations of an interpretation. Colorizing humanizes, it pulls the subject out of the past and into the present.

    The best explanation I’ve ever heard, albeit from a humorous perspective, was from the comic Calvin and Hobbs. Calvin asks his father why old pictures are in B&W. The father explains that the past WAS in B&W, that color film was a reproduction of a B&W world, but then the world transformed into color in the 1930s or so. Calvin then asks why old paintings are in color? The father’s simple explanation is because painters were insane. It goes on from there.

    Here’s a link to the strip on Pinterest:

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