Travel Back in Time With the Master of Photo Colorization
Time travel might be impossible (for now!), but Marina Amaral gets pretty close with Photoshop.
The Brazilian artist digitally colorizes black-and-white photographs from the past with obsessive accuracy and stunning near-perfect hues. Poker-faced historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Lewis Payne suddenly look less stodgy, becoming the kind of warm-blooded people you could imagine laughing or eating or yawning. Events like D-Day and Hiroshima feel somehow more real, as if they just happened. All because of a little ROYGBIV.
Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights March on Washington, DC, 1963
Colorizing photos isn’t a new thing. Swiss printmaker John Baptist Isenring painted daguerreotypes by hand in the 1830s. Today, it’s a surprisingly popular hobby. There are hundreds of online tutorials, a subreddit with more than 100,000 subscribers, and even an algorithm that does a pretty decent job at transforming black and white to color. But for Amaral, colorizing photos isn’t just a hobby. It’s an obsession.
A Saami home in Sweden, photographed between 1885 and 1892.
Amaral’s tinkered with Photoshop since she was about ten. In April 2015, she was poking around an online history forum when she stumbled on colorized photographs of World War I. Inspired, she began experimenting with her own. Over the past year-and-change, Amaral has colorized more than 200 photos.
The process can take more than a month for each image. Amaral usually begins scouring online archives like the Library of Congress, the US National Archives or the British Library. She peruses them for source material, careful to select photographs she knows she’ll be OK staring at for the next few weeks. “I’m going to spend hours working on it,” she says.
Captain Thomas H. Garahan of the ‘Easy’ Company, 2nd Battalion, 398th Infantry Regiment, 100th Infantry Division, raises an American flag secretly made by a local French girl,1945.
Then comes the research. Amaral contacts historians and other experts who help her identify the right colors for objects, whether an ancient pot or a military uniform. She also references present-day photographs of the locations, ideally shot at the same time of day. And she studies people’s faces in real life to understand how light interacts with skin. “I try to be as accurate as possible with the colors, because I’m aware that this is history,” she says. “It’s not my job to modify it and make it look the way I want it to look.”
Next, Amaral maps out the details in Photoshop, adding colors slowly through multiple layers. She uses the brush tool to meticulously fill in pebbles, clothing, and sky. Her images aren’t exactly a ride in Doc Brown’s time machine, but they break down the distance between past and present, satisfying that odd desire many have to experience history firsthand.
Lewis Payne after his arrest in 1865. Payne was John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirator in the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William H. Seward.