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Classic Black-and-White Photographs In Color: Interactive Time Travel

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Do you see in color? Of course you do. You’re a human being. But reactions to color are not universal. Context matters. We associate mood and memories with color, a rainbow of meaning and symbolism in green, red, yellow and blue.

What colors we see matters to colorizers like Sanna Dullaway and Jordan J Lloyd, who add color to old black-and-white photographs. It’s no easy task. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe thought color a “degree of darkness”. Isaac Newton worked on the “celebrated phenomenon of colors”, setting out to prove that light alone was responsible for color. Can color be both dark and light? Josef Albers noted:

In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art. In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems.

First, it should be learned that one and the same color evokes innumerable readings. Instead of mechanically applying or merely implying laws and rules of color harmony, distinct color effects are produced-through recognition of the interaction of color-by making, for instance, two very different colors look alike, or nearly alike.

In the gallery below we can see black-and-white images given a make-over, bathed in the shifting light and dark to give us a new view on the old. Are the pictures improved by colorization? No. I think not. The original remains the authentic image, soaked in a discerning luminosity or simple starkness the best black-and-white pictures possess. What we get is an alternative, often captivating and nuanced.


A portrait from Dorothea Lange’s documentation of the Great Depression. Pictured is a resettled farm child from Taos Junction to the Bosque Farms project – a piece of land acquired by the Federal Resettlement Administration that year to house Dust Bowl refugees.


South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong officer with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon, Vietnam on 1 February, 1968.


Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street, June 11 1963.


American Civil War: Union Captain Cunningham, 1863. Photograph: Library of Congress.


Abraham Lincoln circa 1863. Photograph: Library of Congress.


The Great Depression: a country store in North Carolina, July 1939 Photograph: Dorothea Lange/Library Of Congress

A nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, on 25 July 1946. Photograph: Library Of Congress.


Three farmers swig bottles of Old Milwaukee lager, 1941 Photograph: Arthur Siegel/Library of Congress.


Civil rights movement: The march on Washington, 1963. Photograph: Warren K Leffler/Library of Congress.

  • Mixed reactions for me. In general, I’m against colourization (especially movies such as “It’s A Wonderful Life”), but the one with the Buddhist monk settling himself on fire is incredible in colour. All of the ones from the Great Depression are better in black and white, IMHO, but I do love how the signs pop in the grocery store one. FYI: The captions for the last two need to be switched.

    • lawgone

      I love colorized photos when they are done well like these have done. It makes the viewer more ale to imagine what it was like being there. That these people were real and much like us. It makes it seem not so far away. The only concern I would have is that the originals get lost.

  • pirateIRL

    The caption for the white farmers swilling brewskis is inverted with ’63 March on Washington. Mildly amusing in an irreverent way but should probably be corrected.

  • Will Stalker

    Yeah three white men swigging booze doesn’t really match the theme of a Civil Rights movement shot.