Tag Archives: Historical Photography

A Vibrant Past: Colorizing the Archives of History

Technology has given us an incredibly wide-ranging view of modern presidents; chief White House photographer Pete Souza’s images of Barack Obama show him in countless locations and situations, from meetings in the Oval Office to candid shots of the president eating ice cream with his daughters on vacation.

The photo archive of Abraham Lincoln, the subject of this week’s cover story, is a much smaller set due to the technological limitations of the time; most of the existing photographs of the 16th president are posed portraits, the majority of which only show Lincoln from the chest up—and all are black-and-white.

But TIME commissioned Sanna Dullaway to create a more vibrant document of Lincoln through a series of colorized photographs produced in Photoshop. After removing spots, dust and scratches from archival Lincoln photographs, Dullaway digitally colorizes the files to produce realistic and modern versions of the portraits, which look like they could have been made today.

The 22-year-old Swedish artist began colorizing images in January 2011, when she was listening to the debut album by rock band Rage Against the Machine. The self-titled album’s cover art is a black-and-white picture of a self-immolating monk taken by AP photographer Malcolm Browne. “I thought the normally fiery flames looked so dull in black and white, so I…looked for a way to make them come alive,” she says. Dullaway colorized the flames, and eventually, the entire picture. She then posted the image on Reddit, and it instantly went viral.

Since that first experiment, Dullaway has continued to colorize a wide range of historical figures, including Albert Einstein, Che Guevara and Teddy Roosevelt, each of which has generated viral buzz online. She’s also used the approach on a number of iconic photographs, such as Eddie Adams’ harrowing image of a Vietnam police officer the moment before he’s about to execute a Vietcong prisoner. In each of these renderings, Dullaway’s use of color is subtle and sophisticated—yielding images that maintain the photographic integrity of their originals, while presenting a look at how these photographs may have come out had color photography existed at the time. That nuanced ability to handle color runs in the family; Dullaway’s father is painter.

The images take anywhere from 40 minutes to three hours to produce, and for the young artist, it’s a way of bringing a contemporary perspective to older works. “History has always been black and white to me, from the World War I soldiers to the 1800s, when ladies wore grand but colorless dresses,” Dullaway says. “By colorizing, I watch the photos come alive, and suddenly the people feel more real and history becomes more tangible.”

Lincoln is at the heart of her next project, a book of Civil War images rendered in color. “I felt like it was a good place to start because the war is well documented in the Library of Congress and started roughly around the same time the camera was first used commercially,” Dullaway says. “And a war offers to chance to cover many subjects at once, and present the events of that time as our eyes would see it today—in color.”

Sanna Dullaway is a photo editor based in Sweden. See more of her work here.

History in Color: Rare Photographs of Czarist Russia

A bright orange orb hangs just above the horizon under an expanse of blue and yellow sky. It’s hard to take an interesting picture of a sunset, and at first glance, there is nothing remarkable about this one. What is remarkable, however, is that this vivid image was taken a century ago—a time usually seen only in black and white.

The sunset is just one of thousands of color photographs that Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii made between 1905 and 1915. With funding from Czar Nicholas II, he set out to document the diverse people and landscapes of the vast Russian Empire. Prokudin-Gorskii planned to produce images that would be used in classrooms, but the widespread exposure he envisioned for his pictures was not to be.

Without an affordable method for mass reproduction and with the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution, the photographs languished until the entire collection, including nearly 2,000 glass negatives, was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948. But they too were unable to find a suitable way to present Prokudin-Gorskii’s work until nearly 100 years after they were taken—when digital equipment allowed the library to scan all 1,902 negatives and restore Prokudin-Gorskii’s pictures to their original color.

“His cutting-edge technology met our internet and digitizing cutting-edge technology in just an almost perfect cycle,” said Helena Zinkham, chief of the Prints and Photographs Division of the LOC.

Made public through the LOC’s website beginning in 2001, Prokudin-Gorskii’s digitally restored photographs were shared over the web and featured in a number of small exhibitions around the world. People were drawn, Zinkham believes, as much by the format of the pictures as the content.

“It is as rare as hen’s teeth to have color photography from that era,” said Zinkham. “So it just knocks peoples’ socks off, even if you have no direct connection to Russia.”

Among those who discovered Prokudin-Gorskii’s pictures online was Robert Klanten, the publisher of German publishing company Gestalten. “I saw a couple of these photographs and I was immediately in love with them,” said Klanten. This October, Gestalten will release Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II Captured in Color Photographs, which will feature 283 of Prokudin-Gorskii’s works.

Combing through the entire Prokudin-Gorskii collection, Gestalten’s editorial team was particularly drawn to the portraits and scenes from daily life—many of which were shot in a ‘snapshot’ style despite the three-second exposures necessary to create them.

The pictures themselves cover a remarkable range—both geographically and in subject matter. Portraits were taken against backdrops that range from lush Siberian forests to neatly planted fields to a dank and crumbling prison yard in Turkestan. Even simple scenes—a train track cutting through a rock-strewn landscape or mine workers filling horse-drawn carts—are striking when you realize they portray a land on the verge of revolution, both industrial and political. It is even more appropriate, then, that Prokudin-Gorskii captured these scenes with a groundbreaking photographic method.

“Most people think of the past as something that happened in black and white,” said Klanten. The use of color, combined with Prokudin-Gorskii’s less-formal style was revolutionary in photography, according to Klanten. “The way he approached the whole thing is kind of a precursor to modern photography…it is almost a democratic approach to photography.”

Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II Captured in Color Photographs will be released in the U.S. by Gestalten in October. 

You can explore the entire Prokudin-Gorskii collection at the Library of Congress

‘American Photographs’ by Walker Evans

Like the work of most great artists, the best of Walker Evans’ pictures are marvels of contradiction. Or, rather, they acquire their power through the contradictions they deftly reconcile. One especially striking example: a photograph from 1930 (slide 11 in this gallery) comprised of elements so incongruous that, taken together, they really should not bear scrutiny for more than a few moments before the viewer, shrugging indifferently, moves on.

But through Evans’ uncanny visual alchemy, that particular photograph’s disparate graphic elements—family photos; a half-hidden American flag; dried flowers; a truly hideous plant growing with almost unseemly vitality from a battered wooden bucket—appear not only to belong together, but to need one another in order to make sense.

MOMA

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As seemingly chaotic and even unappealing as the image might feel at first glance, those wildly variant aspects of the photo—the flag, the plant, the faces—somehow cohere into something far more than the sum of their parts. Despite its initially jarring message, “Interior Detail of Portuguese House” does not, in fact, spurn scrutiny—it commands, and rewards, scrutiny. And what’s more amazing is that, after a time, the photograph appears to be gazing back. It is the viewer, and not the picture, that is the subject of an unblinking inquiry—and it’s unsettling.

But if Evans’ pictures are evidence of a rare facility for both creating and resolving contradictions, his career might be seen as his masterpiece. A fierce, determined artist, Walker Evans was for decades on staff at Time Inc.—a salaried editor at, of all places, Fortune magazine from the 1940s until the mid-1960s. That the man behind one of the seminal photographic efforts of the 20th century—the 1938 masterwork, American Photographs—went to the office each day, like any other nine-to-fiver, might astonish those photography buffs who have always, understandably, imagined Evans as nothing if not an irresistible creative force.

And yet, here again, Evans’ intrinsic contradictions—managed as Rodin might handle a lump of clay, or Koufax a curveball—are ultimately resolved in the photographs, singly and collectively, that he produced. He is both iconoclast and working stiff; company man and virtuoso.

This year marks the 75th anniversary edition of American Photographs, reissued by the Museum of Modern Art in an edition that recaptures, for the first time since its original release, what might be called the book’s radical purity. (The book itself, as a physical object, is a pleasure to hold; the duotone plates are gorgeous and crisp, and the size of this edition—an at-once solid and easily handled 7.75″ x 8.75″ hardcover—does justice to the serious, unfussy, thrilling nature of the work inside.)

As in the first edition, Evans’ pictures in the MoMa release appear only on the right-hand side as one turns each page, the utterly blank page on the left—without even a caption to distract the eye—adjuring one to look, to really look, at each picture, one after the other. And as the pages (slowly, slowly) turn, Evans’ accomplishment grows more evident, more impressive, more engaging.

The standard line on Evans is that no one—with a camera or a paintbrush—had ever captured America in quite the clear-eyed, unsentimental, honest  way that he did. But that patently true declaration still fails to encompass the scale and the sustained excellence of his achievement. In American Photographs, in images made during the Great Depression in places as divergent as Pennsylvania, Alabama, New York City and Havana, Cuba, Evans did not hold a mirror up to his country and his time: no mirror ever made, after all, could so clearly reflect what he saw, and what he wanted others to see.

Instead, each and every one of Evans’ pictures provides a window—or an unadorned window frame—from which even the glass has been removed, and through which we witness a scene of such clarity and immediacy that our own contemporary surroundings, if only for a moment, seem somehow less freighted with history. Less grounded. Less real.

The details of a house in Maine (slide 17)—the surprisingly jaunty, seemingly tilted windows; the elegant shapes, graceful patterns and, above all, the textures that give the structure its personality—are not merely the handiwork of people who obviously cared about their hard work; the details of the house are reminders of, and tributes to, the enduring value of hard work and the attention to craft.

The stance, the clothing and the unreadable expression on the face of a lean, dapper citizen of Havana in 1932 (slide 9) are not merely separate elements of a snapshot: like the details of a portrait by an Old Master, they combine to suggest a time, a place and an attitude (defiant, dignified) that have survived the passing decades intact—even if, by now, the man himself must be long dead.

These pictures, and the other pictures in American Photographs, are intensely daring precisely because the man who made them worked so hard to hide—to efface—the effort that went into creating them. Each image stands on its own, while at the same time each picture references the photograph that comes before, and the photograph that follows. It is a straightforward book that stirs complex emotions. It is a treasure.

‘Walker Evans: American Photographs (Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition)’ is available through the Museum of Modern Art.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.