Don’t Fade on Me: Colorization and Restoration of Old Photographs

John'sMom2coverA recent Quickie post by fellow labber, Donna, intrigued me. One of the links featured artist, Mads Madsen. He colorizes black and white photos. It’s a pleasure to browse his gallery; the images really do pull you in. As I focused on particular photographs, especially the Darwin and Churchill ones, I found myself being absolutely hypnotized by their beauty and feeling as if I was peering through a window in time. Mads Madsen is giving the photo-viewing public a different version of old photographs and I love it.

Colorization is nothing new, of course. I found this 1986 Los Angeles Times article about the “controversy” over Ted Turner taking classic black and white films and colorizing them. I remember seeing colorized movies on TV and they often seemed a bit “off”; over-saturated yet faded and unrealistic. Technology has come a long way since then and I think it’d be interesting to see some new colorization techniques being applied to classics.

Today, just like Ted Turner had in 1986, there are critics of the new crop of colorized black and white photos. Their worry is that the new versions lose the meaning and power the old photos had. The way I see it, black and white serves to detach the photo from reality, which can be a powerful effect that works just as well with modern photos as it did with old ones. Color, however brings an image closer to reality, makes it more relatable, more accessible. Today we have the luxury of making the choice to present a photo in either black and white or vibrant color, but for years there was no such choice, and even after color came along there was still the issue of the quality and cost of the film. The use of black and white or sepia in many old photographs was not an artistic choice but was forced upon the photographer by the technology of the day. In the especially old photographs smiling was a burden; the shutter had to stay open for so long that subjects wouldn’t bother to try to hold a smile, so their neutral expressions gave them the strong, stoic, somber look we are accustomed to seeing. Imagine if we had a candid picture of Abe Lincoln laughing; we’d see him in a whole new light.

Despite my enjoyment of the colorization of these photos, I must add that I also love black and white photography. Photographer Ansel Adams almost exclusively  took his photographs using black and white film. He also happens to be one of the reasons I took an interest in photography. I love staring at his work. I think when shooting landscapes in black and white a new dimension is added, something desolate or dark or unreal. It focuses your attention to specific outlines or shapes. It’s almost like another world. I think colorizing these types of landscape photos seems unnecessary because we generally know what trees, canyons, rocks, and sky look like.

On the other hand, people we’ve never met and that no longer exist (except for the work they’ve left behind), are something we desire to connect with on a personal level, even if we can’t physically. Colorizing the photos, when done right, takes us to where these icons were, seeing the world as they did, and feeling a certain connection with them that we weren’t able to have before. Colorization is a worthy artistic endeavor.

Here is the original photo that was given to me to scan and Photoshop
Here is the original photo that was given to me to scan and Photoshop
Here is the final restoration I did on it.
Here is the final restoration I did on it.

Before I tell you about the photography project I did this week I wanted to share something I did recently with an old photograph. A friend asked me if I could digitally restore the only photograph he had of his  mother. It was badly damaged: it had been sealed in a thick plastic case that was now bubbling, had what looked like water damage, miscellaneous stains, and general wear and tear. I restored the colors, erased the scratches, and generally improvised with Photoshop until I was satisfied with the result. It was a fun challenge, and rewarding because I know how important the photo was to my friend. It is now safe and stored digitally as well as printed out and framed. We’re lucky we live in an age where we not only are able to store the photos, but we can improve their quality.

Now, back to my Mad Art project. Mads Madsen’s work motivated me to try my hand at colorization. I watched Madsen’s video that Donna had posted in her Quickie about his technique and read his guide, which gives written instructions on how to colorize.

I then chose one of my own photos which was taken in color but converted to black and white, and set to work on the black and white version. I never looked back at the original color version so I couldn’t “cheat” by trying to match colors. I tinkered around with my photo for awhile in Photoshop, trying his techniques. As artistic folk are known to do, I adapted it to my own technique to end up with a process that I was comfortable and confident with.

I understand my task was much easier than colorizing old civil war photos since I am quite familiar with my subject and the true colors of the original photo, but I wanted to be able to compare my final version to the original to see how well I did.

The black and white version of photo that I was going to colorize.
The black and white version of photo that I was going to colorize.
Colorized Version of the Black and White Photo by Gigi
This is the colorized version I did of the above black and white photograph. I used the paint brush tool and laid layer after layer of various colors to achieve the colorization. Below you can see the original color photograph and compare for yourself. I’m especially proud of the lips, dress, and hair; those were the trickiest.
Original Version of Photo
Here’s the original color version of the photo. Comparing it to the colorized version above, I think I did a pretty good job re-creating the colors. My colorized version looks like a warm filtered version of this photo. I was pleasantly surprised with the results and it was an enjoyable project.

I stand in great awe of the classic photographers who worked within their technical limitations to create beauty…but I sure as hell ain’t giving up my digital camera! I have the luxury and flexibility of modern digital technology at my fingertips. Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom give me artistic freedom unimagined in the dim red glow of the darkrooms of yore. My Canon Rebel Ti gives me the power to quickly and automatically focus on my subject and rapidly snap hundreds of pictures, unencumbered by film.

Whether it’s restoration or colorization, I think it’s wonderful to be able to preserve the past or to find new ways to see it. We can keep history alive while looking at it in ways that were never thought possible. Once again, science and technology save the day!

Gigi Chickee

All photos are taken by me, Gigi Chickee, unless otherwise noted. Photography Correspondent here at Mad Art Lab. Wife to my gorgeous husband, Rob. Mother to my four girls. Proud Secular Homeschooler. Photographer when the occasion arises. Seamstress in training. Skeptic always. Follow me and my musings on Twitter: @gigichickee

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  1. Excellent work Gigi. I like your hand-colored photo MORE than the original.
    I recently made an illustration where I layered color over a fully-rendered pencil drawing using a similar technique. It was lots of fun and I learned quite a bit.

  2. Now I kinda want to see a photo restoration version of Telephone. Take a picture, distress it, have someone restore it, distress that, have someone else restore that, etc. See how much the image changes over several iterations.

  3. Thank you, Brian. I quite enjoyed colorizing this picture, and maybe I’ll do it again, but it did take a bit of time (probably because I was learning the process). I think it’d be fun to get really artsy with it and not just to it for “natural” looking colorization. I’d like to do something a bit different, like changing eye/hair/clothes color.

    Steve, I thought about that too! It would be fun to see different artists’ contributions to the picture over time. It would be a project that didn’t have to end and people would just take the last iteration and add their version on top of it.

  4. Your colorization looks fantastic! Before my grandfather died, my dad and stepmum had a few of his old photos retouched and compiled into a larger piece, it looks pretty good.

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