Technology may progress in leaps and bounds but it often has trouble keeping up with itself.
Take photography, for example.
Originally a monochrome medium, it has evolved to include the color spectrum and then jump to a digital medium, even allowing for 3-dimensional imagery, all within a relatively short time frame. But, with these advances, those early, pioneering images fell by the wayside, not forgotten yet still left behind in the face of the newer, bigger and better (?) state of the art.
These days, however, technology has caught up with itself and we can retroactively add color to all these images that got left behind, from the earliest daguerreotypes to those black and white images taken just prior to the dawn of color processing in wide availability. While some photographers in the digital age like to take the color out of their photos for artistic purposes, it’s much more exciting (and less pretentious) to see the dedicated work of those who put color into old black and white photos.
Anyone not familiar with the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes may not know that this great assembly of Italian Renaissance art was restored, controversially so, within the last 40 years. Modern art scholars and aficionados were shocked at the amazing color of Michelangelo’s original work after being degraded with centuries’ worth of age and exposure to candle smoke and other potential harm.
Just something to take to the table next time the color vs. black & white debate comes up.
Artistic and intellectual twaddle aside, the feature image at the top comes from the photography portfolio of Toni Frissell. It is often referred to as the “Lady in the Water” (although searching for that will lead you only to the M. Night Shyamalan film), and was taken in Weekie Wachee Springs, Florida. It appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in December, 1947. Michael Catanachapodaca colorized the photo in 2012, giving vibrancy to a piece of art with so much life already.
RMS Mauretania, with Chief Engineer John Currie, 1909
The Royal Mail Ship Mauretania was an ocean line that first launched in September, 1907. This photo, with the chief engineer pictured in uniform, shows the vessel in dry dock; it was captured in 1909 at Canada Dock in Liverpool, England. In her day, the RMS Mauretania was the largest and fastest vessel in the world; the ship accomplished the fastest transatlantic crossing that year, a speed record that stood for two decades. The Mauretania was the sister ship to the RMS Lusitania, famously torpedoed by German U-Boats in 1915; her sinking played a role in the United States entering the First World War.
The original photograph is amazing enough in its own right: Marilyn Monroe, one of the first starlets, sex symbol to a generation and the epitome of beauty and grace, captured in a pensive moment by photographer Richard Avedon, her charming, signature smile that lit the world devastatingly absent.
The original is a part of the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The colorized version, done by Mads Madsen, adds the frailty and warmth of humanity that the stark and monochromatic original takes away. The subject becomes a person again, done to particular effect with her hair.
The Buddhist Crisis
In protest to the Buddhist persecution by the South Vietnamese government, Thích Quảng Đức calmly and serenely committed the act of self-immolation, setting fire to himself mere blocks from the presidential palace in Saigon. Originally photographed by Malcolm Browne, the colorized version makes the unreal image undeniable, something from which the quailing human eye cannot turn. It first appeared in a Reddit post by user mygrapefruit.
Academy Award-winner Audrey Hepburn was an icon in the world of cinema. Recognized by the American Film Institute as the third greatest female film legend in 1999, she is renowned for her philanthropy, acting, and of course, her beauty. In acting, she is recognized for imbuing her character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s with charm instead of sexual innuendo; Hepburn’s beauty is renowned for her incredible facial symmetry. The colorized photo, credited also to Mads Madsen, adds the warmth and humanity—notably in her kind, brown eyes—for which Hepburn was later known in her tireless championing of UNICEF.
Hoover Dam Construction
Some politicians in the 1930s found the time to take a ride up in and pose for a photo in one of the giant, 30-feet-wide pipe sections that were to become part of the Hoover Dam, under construction in the background. Someone onsite had a camera (although we wonder the location from which he or she was shooting) and the rest was history. Until someone colorized it, that is making the subjects more human than iconic.
Gas Mask Training
Meet United States Army Sergeant George Camblair. He’s training to use a gas mask in September, 1942, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. With the colorized image, he looks less like an early pulp science fiction illustration. Oh, wow, that’s a real human being trying to make sure he can survive a chemical gas attack, should the occasion call for it. That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but it was surely practical, given that US ground forces were mobilizing for European deployment in World War II in the coming months.
Another cultural icon from American cinema, James Dean is one who was taken too early, dying in a car wreck in 1955 with only a three-film legacy. He embodied teenage angst and adolescent disillusionment in Rebel Without a Cause. Through colorization, his features are imbued with an increased grittiness and he appears more haggard, an opposition to the clean cut establishment. Dean also appeared in Giant and East of Eden. (Madsen)
The Battle of Iwo Jima
On February 23, 1945, amid the fog of war in the chaos of battle, five United States Marines and one US Navy Corpsman raised the US flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. The event was immortalized by photographer Joe Rosenthal, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph that came to define the Second World War and triumph in conflict in general.
Of the six men portrayed—Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, Michael Strank, John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes—only three survived the battle. The photo was used as the basis for the Marine Corps War Memorial, sculpted by Felix de Weldon, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery.
Images of flamboyant surrealist Salvador Dalí almost don’t feel right without color, so this particular colorization is most welcome. To wit, he’s depicted holding his pet ocelot (Archer fans will be delighted to learn the exotic cat’s name is Babou). With all his amazing and vibrant contributions to the art world, to have him captured in monochrome seems a tragedy.
Dalí is quoted as saying “Don’t bother about being modern. Unfortunately it is the one thing that, whatever you do, you cannot avoid.”
In this case, Sal, it’s a good thing to show you in all your mad glory. (Madsen)
As a leader in the Cuban Revolution, Ernesto “Che” Guevara became synonymous with rebellion. Che was opposed to what he called the United States’ capitalist exploitation of Latin America; the t-shirt industry is not without a sense of irony. This photo contrasts with the grim visage typically associated with Guevara; the colorization does even more to show him as a man instead of a myth.
Another man whose legend has grown to overshadow a mortal existence, Albert Einstein is here shown with his hands clasped, wearing a soulful expression. The man whose endorsement of a letter to President Eisenhower helped inspire the Manhattan Project is shown here clad in a simple blue sweater, further humanized by the addition of skin tone to the original photo (mind you, Einstein was opposed to nuclear fission being used in weaponry). (Madsen)
Trailer Park Guest
In January, 1941, this young girl was visiting a trailer park in Sarasota, Florida with her family. So close to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, she had plenty of shells at her disposal. She was photographed here by Mary Post Walcott, working for the Farm Security Administration. This colorization looks a bit too Technicolor to be accurate. And add to that the fact that it’s January and she’s wearing shorts and a tank top with no shoes. Either the colorized version is embellished or, more likely, the photo information is incorrect. (Tom Thounaojam)
Considered by some to be the progenitor of American literature, Samuel Clemens—known widely by his nom de plume, Mark Twain—is a noted author and humorist. He is shown here later in life, and the stark, monochrome original does little to disabuse us of the view of the iconic Twain as the consummate curmudgeon. But, when colorized, it shows an endearing crankiness that is warm and grandfatherly.
“Of the demonstrably wise there are but two: those who commit suicide, and those who keep their reasoning faculties atrophied by drink.” – Mark Twain
Nuclear Bomb Test
No photo can capture the destructive power of a nuclear bomb. This bomb test, part of Operation Crossroads, took place on Bikini Atoll on July 25, 1946. A 23-kiloton warhead was detonated 90 feet below water to test the effects on naval vessels. (Sanna Dullaway via The Guardian)
Moving on to lighter fare, here is children’s television wunderkind and puppeteer Jim Henson with some of his friends, whom you may know. He created The Muppets and is responsible for the success of Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and Dinosaurs, in addition to Muppets movies, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. His goal in life was to make a difference and leave the world a better place for him having been there. For a creator who brought so much color and life to children’s programming, it’s odd to see the cover of his biography in monochrome, but understandable given its posthumous release more than 20 years after his death. (Madsen)
“The most sophisticated people I know – inside they are all children.” – Jim Henson
This photo was taken amid the Great Depression by FSA photographer Dorothea Lange, as part of her job documenting the suffering of the poor and displaced. The story of Florence Owens Thompson is a vignette straight out of The Grapes of Wrath: traveling in March, 1936, on US 101 to Watsonville, California in search of work picking peas, the timing chain on the family’s car broke, stranding them just inside an overcrowded pickers’ camp in Nipomo. There was no work to be found, with the crops destroyed by freezing rain. With her husband and two sons took the also-damaged radiator to town for repair, this is how Lange found the Thompson family.
After invoking The Grapes of Wrath and mentioning James Dean in East of Eden, it’s only fitting to share Madsen’s colorization of John Steinbeck, the author of both works. The Grapes of Wrath earned Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize, while East of Eden, considered to be his magnum opus, helped him win the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature.
In East of Eden, he captures his native Salinas Valley—the sights, sounds, smells and, of course, the colors— for his two sons, Thom and John, to whom the novel was originally addressed.
Beer Drinking Farmers
Nothing like a swig of the ol’ brewski while tilling the fields and working the land. The original photo was obtained from the U.S. Library of Congress, having been shot in 1941 in Jackson, Michigan by Arthur Siegel. He captured the American worker sipping the suds of Old Milwaukee after (before?) a hard day’s work in the field. It was colorized by Jordan J Lloyd of Dynamichrome for The Guardian, adding human warmth to an iconic scene that now looks like it could have been taken yesterday.
What better way to close this collection than with a colorized photo of the Man in Black? This original black and white came from Sony Music, according to the L.A. Times, in 1958, as Cash released his third studio album, The Fabulous Johnny Cash. The Times used it as part of their piece chronicling his life in photos. Madsen uses it to show off his talents and the power of colorized photos of iconic times and people.
What was your favorite colorized, formerly black & white photo?