HISTORY’S TRUE COLOURS
A new book infuses famous historic photos with colour, giving fresh perspective to the past
HE WAS the face of a revolution that birthed the dream of a rainbow nation – and Nelson Mandela used every weapon in his arsenal to fight for South Africa’s freedom. On the first day of his 1962 trial for leaving the country without permission and inciting workers to strike, he made a dramatic entrance in traditional beads and leopard skin.
The leopard, anthropology professor Zolani Ngwane points out, is conventionally considered a Thembu royal symbol of power, majesty, grace and agility. And it’s these qualities that are evident in a photograph taken of Madiba a few days ahead of his trial.
The picture, which has now been digitally remastered in colour, shows the young politician with a white robe draped over one muscular brown arm as he stares into the distance – pensive, proud and regal.
A depiction that says both warrior king and suffering messiah, as Ngwane puts it.
Yet the problem with all the famous pictures from history before the mid1960s is we’re so used to seeing them in black and white that it’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining that back then people inhabited a one-dimensional and monochromatic world void of any depth or bright colours.
That’s why these images from a new book, The Colour of Time: A New History of the World, 1850-1960, are simultaneously so fascinating and unsettling. They’re famous pictures we’ve seen
countless times and yet – through the use of some digital magic – they’re cast in a completely new light.
Simply adding colour has brought to life events that had been consigned to the dusty pages of history books and given them a whole new dose of drama.
From Emmeline Pankhurst digging in her heels and taking a stand for women’s rights on the rainy streets of London in 1914 to Madiba’s majestic picture – key moments in history suddenly appear far more vivid and “real”, as though they happened just yesterday.
And that’s exactly what the authors, Dan Jones and Marina Amaral, set out to do. “This book is an attempt to restore brilliance to a desaturated world,” they wrote. “It is a history in colour.”
For Dan, a respected British historian, and Marina, a talented Brazilian digital colourist, it was a two-year labour of love. To start off they had to sift through more than 10 000 black- and- white photographs from 1850-1969 to find the perfect ones.
Then Marina set to work – and it wasn’t just a case of choosing pretty colours to spruce up these old pictures. “Conscience dictates that before you sit down to colourise a historical photograph you must do your homework,” she said.
“Where possible each detail must be verified: traced via other visual or written sources. There is no way of knowing the original hues just by looking at the different shades of grey. The only course of action is the one familiar to every historian, whatever their speciality: dig, dig, dig.”
In other words, this is the closest glimpse you’ll get of how things actually were back then. It’s like stepping into a time machine. Marina points out that although the canvas on which she works is a computer screen, every part of the picture is coloured by hand – which explains why it can take up to a month to colourise a single picture.
“There’s nothing algorithmic in the process,” said Marina, who’s been hailed as “the master of photo colourisation” by respected tech magazine Wired. “The tools may be digital but the artist’s basic technique hasn’t changed since Leonardo da Vinci’s day. Slowly starting to apply colours over colours, mixing them through hundreds of layers, trying to capture and reproduce a specific atmosphere that is consistent with the photo itself.”
And the result? Well, take a look at the pictures and judge for yourself.
RIGHT: Nelson Mandela in 1950. BELOW: Three women pose with bambusa brooms in a yard in Belton, South Carolina in the US, in the mid- to late 19th century. A young girl stands in the background.
ABOVE: American actor and comedian Harold Lloyd in his 1923 film Safety Last. Harold played a retail store clerk who wants to make good with his boss by cooking up a publicity stunt. He hires a human fly, AKA a professional stunt climber, to climb all the way to the top of the store’s 17-storey building from the outside. But the human fly has a run-in with the cops so Harold has to do the climbing himself.LEFT: Adolf Hitler wearing a pair of lederhosen (leather breeches) and a shirt with a swastika armband. The picture was taken in the early 1920s when Hitler’s Nazi party’s popularity was growing in Germany. RIGHT: Jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong in 1944.BELOW: One of the Wright brothers in a glider flying above the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, America. The brothers made about 700 of these test flights before making history with the first powered flight on 17 December 1903.