The colour of time

Brazil­ian artist Ma­rina Amaral sup­plies iconic pho­to­graphs with the real-life hues that the black and white tech­nol­ogy of the time could not

Sunday Times - - Insight - By NA­DINE DREYER

It was a pho­to­graph of three naked young boys run­ning into the surf of Lake Tan­ganyika that brought home the po­ten­tial of this new medium to Henri Cartier-Bres­son. “I sud­denly un­der­stood that pho­tog­ra­phy can fix eter­nity in a mo­ment,” said the fa­ther of mod­ern pho­to­jour­nal­ism. The roots of pho­tog­ra­phy in the early 19th cen­tury in­volved clunky equip­ment and toxic chem­i­cal pro­cesses, which meant it was con­fined to the stu­dio.

Then, in the 1930s, a new cam­era was devel­oped that would change the way we see our world for­ever. The Le­ica com­pact was small enough to carry around, al­low­ing pho­tog­ra­phers such as Cartier-Bres­son to move through a crowd un­ob­tru­sively. He could now cap­ture the spon­tane­ity for which he be­came renowned. (Ap­par­ently he painted all the shiny parts of his cam­era black to make his pres­ence even more un­ob­tru­sive. )

It had be­come eas­ier to doc­u­ment the seis­mic events of the 20th cen­tury, but at the start this was al­most en­tirely in black and white.

Now, a new book at­tempts to re­store bril­liance to the iconic im­ages that are our win­dow into the past. The Colour of Time: A new his­tory of the world, 18501960 fea­tures fa­mous pho­to­graphs coloured by Brazil­ian artist Ma­rina Amaral.

To­gether with his­to­rian Dan Jones, Amaral sifted through 10,000 pic­tures be­fore whit­tling it down to the 200 shown in the book.

Amaral says the colouri­sa­tion process is sim­i­lar to that of a tra­di­tional paint­ing, but ex­ten­sive re­search is key.

Be­fore start­ing she finds as many ref­er­ences for the pic­ture as pos­si­ble. These would in­clude de­tails such as the colours of uni­forms and the hues of cloth­ing com­mon at the time.

Cartier-Bres­son dis­missed colour pho­tog­ra­phy as in­fe­rior to that of black and white, but Amaral believes colour makes it eas­ier to cre­ate a per­sonal con­nec­tion with the past.

She told blog­ger Fred­er­ick Wertz of find­my­ “When I colourise a pic­ture, I feel like I’m recre­at­ing an event that could have hap­pened yes­ter­day.

“Black and white pho­tos are won­der­ful and pow­er­ful, but they can cre­ate an ob­sta­cle for this con­nec­tion to hap­pen in a more in­ti­mate and deep level.”


This pho­to­graph of Chi­nese Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi was taken in 1908 by a diplo­mat’s son, an am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher, five years be­fore her death,

We owe our in­sight into the fi­nal days of the Qing dy­nasty to a mi­nor Bri­tish baronet, Sir Ed­mund Trelawny Back­house, who wrote his mem­oirs, Dé­ca­dence Mand­choue, al­most 60 years ago.

Em­press Cixi was known as the “dragon lady” and “old mas­ter Bud­dha”. She en­joyed dress­ing up and loved to be pho­tographed. Her silk cloth­ing was em­broi­dered with pearls, and she wore jew­els, jade and gold hair­pins threaded through her hair.

She liked eat­ing at mid­night, the hour of the rat. She would be served 120 dif­fer­ent dishes for each meal but would eat only two or three bites of some of the dishes be­cause of her fear that she would be poi­soned.

Back­house’s mem­oirs, writ­ten more than 30 years af­ter the events they de­scribe, in­clude the sala­cious de­tails of his se­duc­tion at the hands of the dragon lady. She had sent or­ders that she wanted to se­duce him and who could dis­obey an im­pe­rial com­mand?

Ac­cord­ing to his mem­oirs, Back­house was ad­vised by a eu­nuch that the “old an­ces­tress will re­quire the most con­tact: you must per­fume whole per­son for the oc­ca­sion. She has never seen a naked Eu­ro­pean of de­cent birth and will want to in­spect you closely be­hind and be­fore.”

Back­house wrote that the em­press had “breasts which were those of a young mar­ried woman; her skin was exquisitely scented … her whole body, small and shapely, was redo­lent with la joie de

vivre; her shapely but­tocks, pearly and large, were pre­sented to my ad­mir­ing con­tem­pla­tion; I felt for her a real li­bidi­nous pas­sion such as no woman has ever in­spired in my pervert ho­mo­sex­ual mind be­fore nor since”.

Cixi had risen from the po­si­tion of im­pe­rial con­cu­bine and had ef­fec­tively ruled the em­pire for 47 years from “be­hind the cur­tain”, since women were not al­lowed to ap­pear at meet­ings of male of­fi­cials.

Some say she was mur­dered by her nephew, oth­ers that she was poi­soned. Her death marked the end of the

350-year Qing dy­nasty.

‘I feel like I’m recre­at­ing an event that could have hap­pened yes­ter­day’


They swore, smoked, drank, chopped off their hair and burnt their corsets. Flappers were young women chal­leng­ing their par­ents’ con­ven­tions in the Roar­ing Twen­ties. They turned ideas of how women were sup­posed to dress, act and think on their heads.

Dur­ing World War 1 women en­tered the work­force and, af­ter the war, in the 1920s, were not in­clined to give up their in­de­pen­dence.

As hem­lines rose, au­thor­i­ties re­sponded by im­pos­ing dress rules. Fe­male bank em­ploy­ees, for ex­am­ple, couldn’t wear sleeves short­ened above the el­bow, and hems couldn’t be higher than 30cm from the ground. They could wear only dresses, and then only in black, blue or brown.

Of­fi­cial­dom’s tape mea­sure ruled the beaches as bathing cos­tumes be­came more re­veal­ing.

Neck­lines could not be lower than armpit level and hems no more than 10cm above the knees. In this photo taken on a beach on the Po­tomac River in Wash­ing­ton DC, a park su­per­in­ten­dent en­sures women’s bathing suits com­ply with reg­u­la­tions.


This pho­to­graph of a mother and two of her chil­dren be­came em­blem­atic of the suf­fer­ing that the Great De­pres­sion of the 1930s in­flicted on or­di­nary Amer­i­cans.

Pho­tog­ra­pher Dorothea Lange was driv­ing through Cal­i­for­nia in 1936 when she came upon Florence Owens and her five chil­dren in a pea-pick­ers camp. Owens had jour­neyed all the way from the Ok­la­homa dust bowl with her chil­dren but the crops had failed and the mi­grant work­ers were close to star­va­tion.

“I saw and ap­proached the hun­gry and des­per­ate mother, as if drawn by a mag­net. I do not re­mem­ber how I ex­plained my pres­ence or my cam­era to her, but I do re­mem­ber she asked me no ques­tions. I did not ask her name or her his­tory. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been liv­ing on frozen veg­eta­bles from the sur­round­ing fields, and birds that the chil­dren killed. She had just sold the tyres from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her chil­dren hud­dled around her, and seemed to know that my pic­tures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equal­ity about it,” Lange wrote.

Her sub­ject’s rav­aged beauty touched a nerve with the pub­lic and the govern­ment was gal­vanised into ac­tion, but by then Owens and her chil­dren had moved on.


Mata Hari is syn­ony­mous with the al­lure of the ex­otic femme fa­tale, al­though the truth was far more pedes­trian.

She was born Mar­garetha Geertru­ida Zelle in 1876 in the Nether­lands. Through var­i­ous twists of fate she ended up as a dancer on the Paris stage.

She claimed to be an In­done­sian princess trained in ex­otic rit­u­als and Hindu dances. Men begged for her favours. One de­scribed how, apart from chis­elled brass cupo­las con­ceal­ing her small breasts, she danced “bare, fas­tid­i­ously bare from the nails of her fin­gers to her toes”.

Dur­ing World War 1 Mata Hari was ac­cused of spy­ing for the Ger­mans. On Fe­bru­ary 13 1917, she was ar­rested by French au­thor­i­ties on charges of es­pi­onage. Her ten­dency to fab­ri­cate her past, which had ig­nited the dance stages of Paris, tripped her up dur­ing her in­ter­ro­ga­tion and she was found guilty af­ter a short de­lib­er­a­tion.

On Oc­to­ber 15 1917 the se­duc­tress who once had Paris on its knees was driven to Caserne de Vin­cennes, the bar­racks of the old fort in east­ern Paris.

Ac­cord­ing to an eye-wit­ness she re­fused a blind­fold and, af­ter blow­ing the fir­ing squad a kiss, was ex­e­cuted.


This por­trait was taken in the early 1920s when the lit­tle cor­po­ral was em­bark­ing on his road to dic­ta­tor­ship. Adolf Hitler had rapidly grown his sup­port base in Bavaria and felt em­bold­ened to try to seize power in Mu­nich. In 1923 he and his Nazi fol­low­ers staged what is now known as the Beer Hall Putsch, a com­i­cally am­a­teur­ish op­er­a­tion.

Af­ter the botched coup Hitler was charged with trea­son. He was sen­tenced to five years in Lands­berg prison but served only nine months.

Prison of­fi­cials treated him like a dis­tin­guished guest. His wing was nick­named “Feld­her­rn­hügel” or “the gen­eral’s hill”. His con­fi­dant Ernst Han­f­s­taengl said vis­it­ing Hitler felt like walk­ing into a del­i­catessen. “There was fruit and there were flow­ers, wine and other al­co­holic bev­er­ages, ham, sausage, cake, boxes of choco­lates and much more.” (Hitler put on weight, but dis­missed a sug­ges­tion that he ex­er­cise.)

A prison of­fi­cial wrote on Septem­ber 18 1924 that the Nazi leader “was al­ways rea­son­able, fru­gal, mod­est and po­lite to every­one, es­pe­cially the of­fi­cials at the fa­cil­ity”. The pris­oner didn’t smoke or drink and “sub­mit­ted will­ingly to all re­stric­tions”.

In Lands­berg, Hitler dic­tated Mein Kampf to his fel­low pris­on­ers and fa­nat­i­cal dis­ci­ples Emil Mau­rice and Ru­dolf Hess.

With his stodgy body, crazed glare and petu­lant pose, the over­grown school­boy comes across as both ridicu­lous and men­ac­ing in this pho­to­graph. Who could imag­ine the malev­o­lent buf­foon would come to power 10 years later and drag the world into war in his pur­suit of Aryan per­fec­tion? As it turns out, too few peo­ple.


The thou­sand-yard stares and man­gle of skele­tal limbs in Buchenwald con­cen­tra­tion camp brought home the scale of the Holo­caust as no words could.

As the Al­lied forces lib­er­ated Europe from Nazi tyranny in 1945, the Buchenwald in­mates had al­ready taken over the death camp af­ter most of the SS guards fled.

As well as be­ing a death camp, Buchenwald was the site of ex­per­i­ments. One of them aimed at de­ter­min­ing the pre­cise fa­tal dose of a poi­son. Ac­cord­ing to the tes­ti­mony of one doc­tor, four Soviet POWs were ad­min­is­tered the poi­son, and when it proved not to be fa­tal they were “stran­gled in the cre­ma­to­rium” and sub­se­quently “dis­sected”. Two priests were cru­ci­fied up­side down.

A con­tem­po­rary re­port in the Guardian de­scribed how Al­lied sol­diers forced lo­cals to wit­ness the hor­ror first­hand.

“A thou­sand of the cit­i­zens of Weimar marched six miles [9.5km] through lovely coun­try to the Buchenwald con­cen­tra­tion camp yes­ter­day.

“There in groups of 100 they were con­ducted on a tour of the cre­ma­to­rium with the black­ened frames of bod­ies still in the ovens and two piles of ema­ci­ated dead in the yard out­side, through huts where liv­ing skele­tons too ill or weak to rise lay packed in three-tier bunks …

“It was an ex­pe­ri­ence they can never for­get. Most of the women and some of the men were in tears as they moved from block to block. Many were cry­ing bit­terly. Some of the women fainted and could be taken no far­ther.”

A clock in Buchenwald is per­ma­nently set at 3.15pm — the time the camp was lib­er­ated on April 11 1945 by the Sixth Ar­moured Di­vi­sion of the US army.

When the sur­vivors came to be tal­lied there were 21,000 in all, in­clud­ing 4,000 Jews and 1,000 chil­dren.


This por­trait of Nel­son Man­dela in tra­di­tional dress was taken by pho­tog­ra­pher El­lie Wein­berg while Man­dela was in hid­ing in 1961.

Man­dela spent al­most two months un­der­cover in the tiny ground-floor flat of his friend Wolfie Kodesh in

Yeoville, sleep­ing on a camp bed. For this pho­to­graph he wrapped him­self in Kodesh’s bed­spread to sug­gest a kaross.

Man­dela wore tra­di­tional dress when he was sen­tenced to five years’ im­pris­on­ment in 1962 for leav­ing SA without per­mis­sion and in­cit­ing work­ers to strike.

He said later: “I had cho­sen tra­di­tional dress to em­pha­sise the sym­bol­ism that I was a black African walk­ing into a white man’s court.”

As he re­turned to his cell at the start of the trial, a

Colonel Ja­cobs or­dered him to hand over his “blan­ket”. Man­dela re­fused to take off his kaross, telling the colonel he had no ju­ris­dic­tion over his dress and he was pre­pared to take the mat­ter all the way to the high­est court. He was al­lowed to wear his kaross in court but not to and from court as, ac­cord­ing to news­pa­per re­ports, it would “in­cite” other pris­on­ers if they saw the tra­di­tional dress.

Kodesh de­scribed the at­mo­sphere as Man­dela en­tered the court: “It was in­cred­i­ble, be­cause as he came up, there was a com­plete hush. Even the po­lice­men … I hon­estly think they went pale to see this huge man stand­ing there in his na­tional cos­tume. And that mag­is­trate just looked, and he couldn't find his voice!”

‘There she sat in that leanto tent … She seemed to know my pic­tures might help her, so she helped me’

Em­press Cixi

Mea­sur­ing swim­suits

Mata Hari

Buchenwald con­cen­tra­tion camp sur­vivors

Nel­son Man­dela

Mi­grant mother

Adolf Hitler

’The Colour of Time’ pub­lished by Head of Zeus, R495

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