HIS­TORY’S TRUE COLOURS

A new book in­fuses fa­mous his­toric pho­tos with colour, giv­ing fresh per­spec­tive to the past

DRUM - - News - COM­PILED BY JANE VORSTER

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

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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.

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