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Colour pics bring the distant past to life

These days, few people take black-and-white photographs, but those who do find that it lends a certain timeless gravitas to the sitters. Contemporary men and women suddenly seem like historical figures.

And it works the other way around, too: if you expertly colour an old black-and-white picture of a long-gone figure like Queen Victoria or General Custer, you find that, as if by magic, they are rescued from history, and appear as vivid as our contemporaries.

Marina Amaral is a Brazilian artist who specialises in colouring historical photographs. She has produced a book of 200 photographs that were originally in black and white but are miraculously now in colour.

The effect of colour is far more transformative than you might imagine. The Wright Brothers take off from a hill in the first manned flight in 1903: instead of being light grey, the sky is a brilliant blue, and suddenly it seems like yesterday.

Butch Cassidy (front row, right) and the Sundance Kid (front row, left), 1900. Around the year 1900, while on the run, they got dressed up in their Sunday best and marched into a photographic studio in Fort Worth, Texas, to have their portrait taken

Amelia Earhart, sits smiling in the cockpit of her two-person Lockheed Electra 10E, in 1937, ready to embark on the first circumnavigation of the globe by air

Amelia Earhart, sits smiling in the cockpit of her two-person Lockheed Electra 10E, in 1937, ready to embark on the first circumnavigation of the globe by air

Hitler, Dortmund, 1933. Page after page is given over to photographs of conflicts and battles from around the world. Gloom takes centre stage, while joy barely gets a look-in

Hitler, Dortmund, 1933. Page after page is given over to photographs of conflicts and battles from around the world. Gloom takes centre stage, while joy barely gets a look-in

The Hindenburg wrapped in flames. The title of this book might just as easily have been ‘Human Misery in Colour’

The Hindenburg wrapped in flames. The title of this book might just as easily have been ‘Human Misery in Colour’

Another famous aviator, Amelia Earhart, sits smiling in the cockpit of her two-person Lockheed Electra 10E, in 1937, ready to embark on the first circumnavigation of the globe by air. In the old black-and-white photograph, she looks like a distant figure from long ago. But when the same photograph is turned into colour – her hair ginger, her eyes blue, her leather jacket a shiny light brown – she not only looks much younger, but she also looks as though she heaved herself into that cockpit only yesterday, ready to set out on her fateful voyage.

How Marina Amaral achieves this extraordinary effect is never quite explained. In an all-too-brief introduction, Amaral and her co-author, Dan Jones (who supplies the deft and pithy commentary), say that the photographs have been ‘digitally colourised’, but that ‘although the canvas on which you work is a computer screen, every single part of the picture is coloured by hand’. The process can take anything up to a month for a single photograph.

How accurate are the colours? ‘There is no way of knowing the original hues just by looking at the different shades of grey.’ Nor is there any computer programme that can turn black and white into colour, or at least not with any accuracy. Instead, Amaral has to use historical research to tease out every colour. ‘A portrait of a soldier, say, will contain uniforms, medals, ribbons, patches, vehicles, skin, eye and hair colours. Where possible, each detail must be verified: traced via other visual or written sources.’

There’s a photograph in the book of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, taken in 1890, staring straight at the camera, wearing a metallic, heavily bejewelled headpiece. Now, in the past I’ve seen countless photographs of Bernhardt, including this one, but they have all looked like relics: none has given me more than the faintest clue as to her allure and her charisma. But – hey presto! – here she stands in her mauve tunic, peppered with rubies and emeralds, her piercing blue eyes cutting straight into the camera, and she immediately comes alive. Colour has resurrected her charisma. She is in command. For the first time ever, I can see why the wonderfully acute French diarist Jules Renard once wrote of her, ‘When she comes down the winding staircase of the hotel, it looks as though she were standing still, while the staircase turns around her.’

Or take Butch Cassidy and his famous gang of outlaws. Around the year 1900, while on the run, they got dressed up in their Sunday best and marched into a photographic studio in Fort Worth, Texas, to have their portrait taken. Legend has it that they then cockily sent their group photo to a bank after robbing it, and also to Pinkerton’s Detective Agency. In black and white, the photograph is interesting but somehow unremarkable: the five men look much like any starchy group of bowler-hatted Victorians. But colour makes them come alive and, by broadening the range of hues, allows one to glimpse telling little details: while the other four members of his gang are looking stony-faced and slightly to the left of camera, Butch Cassidy himself is looking headlong at the photographer, a sly smile playing on his lips. Also, just behind Cassidy’s left shoulder is a bunch of flowers, part of a painted backdrop. One barely notices the flowers in black and white, but in colour their genteel creams and pinks lend a further mocking tone to this decorous portrait of these notorious bank robbers.

The life-like quality of Amaral’s colouring also adds a great deal to the magic. Even today, when colour reproduction is pretty advanced, there is still an artificiality to the colour in most ordinary photographs: it tends to be too bright, too garish, too primitive, so that it remains distinct from life as we see it. But Amaral’s colouring is extremely subtle: the hue in the fold of a trouser leg seems to contain infinite variations. This means that her touched-up photographs look even more realistic, and closer to life, than a photograph taken yesterday.

You can see this in a photograph of Leo Tolstoy in grand old age sitting on a bench with his grandchildren Ilya and Sonya, his forefingers a foot or so apart, because he is telling them a story about a garden full of cucumbers. The children are smiling, and clearly captivated by their grandpa, the master storyteller.

It is not time alone that obscures the great men of that era: their beards also play a big part in hiding their faces from us. Photographs in the book of other late-Victorian beardies include Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and General Ulysses S Grant.

No doubt someone will one day pioneer a photographic technique for posthumously scraping the beards off these illustrious figures, so that we can see them clean-shaven. Until that day comes, Amaral draws us as close as we can be to them: Tolstoy is as clear as daylight in this delightful photograph, his long, straight fingers and beautiful old hands never more vivid.

It is a shame, though, that there is so little delight in the rest of the book. This is not the fault of the technique, which strikes me as faultless, but of the authors’ selection: at least three-quarters of the photographs in this book involve war, death and destruction. Human progress across the 100 years on display – advances in art or sport, or in justice and welfare – is marginalised. Gloom takes centre stage, while joy barely gets a look-in.

Page after page is given over to photographs of conflicts and battles from around the world: not only the First and Second World Wars, but the Russo-Japanese war, the Philippine-American War, the Italo-Ethiopian war, the Anglo-Afghan war, the Russo-Turkish war, and so on, and so on.

Queen Victoria. The life-like quality of Amaral’s colouring adds a great deal to the magic. Even today, when colour reproduction is pretty advanced, there is still an artificiality to the colour in most ordinary photographs

Queen Victoria. The life-like quality of Amaral’s colouring adds a great deal to the magic. Even today, when colour reproduction is pretty advanced, there is still an artificiality to the colour in most ordinary photographs

The great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, taken in 1890. Colour has resurrected her charisma. She is in command. For the first time ever, I can see why the wonderfully acute French diarist Jules Renard once wrote of her, ‘When she comes down the winding staircase of the hotel, it looks as though she were standing still, while the staircase turns around her.’

The great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, taken in 1890. Colour has resurrected her charisma. She is in command. For the first time ever, I can see why the wonderfully acute French diarist Jules Renard once wrote of her, ‘When she comes down the winding staircase of the hotel, it looks as though she were standing still, while the staircase turns around her.’

Leo Tolstoy in grand old age sitting on a bench with his grandchildren Ilya and Sonya. These photographs look even more realistic, and closer to life, than a photograph taken yesterday

Leo Tolstoy in grand old age sitting on a bench with his grandchildren Ilya and Sonya. These photographs look even more realistic, and closer to life, than a photograph taken yesterday

A newsboy brandishing a placard that reads ‘TITANIC DISASTER GREAT LOSS OF LIFE’. Why the authors decided to make such a colourful book quite so dark is never explained

A newsboy brandishing a placard that reads ‘TITANIC DISASTER GREAT LOSS OF LIFE’. Why the authors decided to make such a colourful book quite so dark is never explained

Corpses abound: ‘This picture shows decapitated prisoners lying in the street after one bout of revolutionary violence,’ runs the description of a photograph taken of a Chinese bloodbath in 1908: elsewhere there are gruesome pictures of the dead Mussolini, the Crown Prince of Austria after his suicide, a field of dead Confederates after the Battle of Gettysburg, and, neatly laid out in open coffins, the Communards of Paris, slaughtered by the French army in 1871.

The Hindenburg wrapped in flames; a newsboy brandishing a placard that reads ‘TITANIC DISASTER GREAT LOSS OF LIFE’; the empty room, punctured by bullet holes, in which the Romanovs met their grisly end: the title of this book might just as easily have been ‘Human Misery in Colour’.

Why the authors decided to make such a colourful book quite so dark is never explained, but anyone leafing through what the subtitle calls ‘A New History Of The World 1850-1960’ would be left thinking that those 100 years were just an endless procession of slaughter, with a few bearded achievers thrown in for good measure.

 



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