Retrographic: New photography book brings historic images into colour

PUBLISHED: 11:00 01 November 2017

VJ Day in Times Square

VJ Day in Times Square

Archant

From bruising and stubble on Lee Harvey Oswald’s face, to the vivid red of the Russian flag flying over the Reichstag, or the turquoise of Bikini Atoll beneath a mushroom cloud, a new book transforms some of history’s most evocative images into colour

Lee Harvey Oswald Lee Harvey Oswald

Journalist and author Michael Carroll’s remarkable book Retrographic (Carpet Bombing Culture £19.95) not only tells the stories behind iconic shots like Alfred Eisenstaedt’s sailor passionately kissing a nurse in Times Square on VJ Day but it brings these monochrome images into living colour.

The 38-year-old, who grew up in Crouch End attending Rokesly Primary and Fortismere, says the book grew out of his contacts with the global online community of “colourisors”.

“They’re people who have a love of historical imagery, and either as a hobby or professionally, colourise old photographs. Often they are simply struck by the image or if professional they might be doing it as a commission,” he says.

As manager of Birmingham press agency Media Drum World, Carroll has used colourisers’ work for newspaper features.

“The artists have a deep respect for the aesthetic value of black and white in framing subjects in such a way as to make them “classic” or “timeless”. Psychologically we attach a huge amount of baggage to the black and white medium associated with our conception of the past. A simple example is the use of black and white filters on our mobiles or Instagram to create a vintage 
feel to images. Adding black and white to pictures suddenly makes them look as though they could be from a remote period in history. You could argue that adding colour has the reverse psychological effect, of making pictures feel more contemporary, less detached from now.”

Calamity Jane Calamity Jane

Carroll argues that seeing famous images in colour; The Vietnamese girl caught in a napalm attack, the mugshot of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, helps us view them afresh.

“Many are part of the tapestry of world civilization and will be familiar to nearly everyone. However, when something familiar is made unfamiliar, in this case through the addition of colour, the viewer is invited to consider the object as if for the first time.”

Even if we aesthetically prefer the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe in her flowing white dress in black and white “seeing this iconic image for the first time in colour changes and possibly adds value to our understanding of who Marilyn was.”

Retrographic also includes remarkable colour images of Rasputin, Abraham Lincoln, Charlie Chaplin and Calamity Jane, which Carroll believes “help bring historical figures closer to us as contemporary viewers”.

“As we look into the eyes of people from history, the subjects reach out to us. We are transported back to their time through the addition of colour. Or if we look at this journey in reverse, colourisation brings the image to us, and takes the subject forward to the 21st Century. Either way, we are meeting our forebears afresh and with perhaps more sympathetic eyes, than if they are only viewed in the more abstract, detached format of black and white.”

Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln

The father of two says artistically the colourisation process, using Photostop “is much like painting”.

“Some hobbyists use their artistic feeling to choose the colours but where the complexity comes in is in recreating the authentic colours that would have been present when the photograph was taken. Many use the tried and tested approach of historians: hours of historical research from primary sources. Sometimes it’s straightforward: it’s easy to find out that Rasputin’s eyes were blue but it’s harder to know the shade of a Vietnamese soldier’s uniform in a particular battle 50 years ago under the precise weather and light conditions the day the image was taken.”

Some colourisers have developed computer algorithms to provide a colour palette from the black and white tones. Many artists restore images as part of their work, which also involves much research.

“Colourised photographs can be viewed as being more authentic than black and white in bringing us closer to the events as they actually occurred,” adds Carroll.

“Through colourisation we have a chance to peer over the photographer’s shoulder, it’s the closest we will get to witnessing scenes as the photographer themselves would have seen them.”

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