Connection Through Color: Black and White Photographs Take on New Life

Connection Through Color: Black and White Photographs Take on New Life

One could easily say that nothing is what it seems because our minds create a subjective representation of the world around us. With memories, this representation may be even more complex. As scientists explain, encoding a memory in the brain is a biological event that begins with a sensory experience. Every memory we have captures emotions, and colors are one of those aspects that evoke and illustrate what we feel.

But to remember means more than just going back to the past. Memories play an essential role in forming our self-identity. We can revisit the things we have experienced and observe how we have changed, giving us a new perspective of what we have learned and who we are becoming. And in a very particular way, humans keep history and memories alive through heirlooms, writings, and photos. 

We capture moments and cherish memories through photographs. As Eudora Welty said: “A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.” We can simply go back to a photo whenever we want. But with old, black and white photographs, the emotion or memory we can recall is not in its entirety, ours. There is an innate distance between the person in real-time viewing the monochromatic image and the actual moment captured.

Adding color to a black and white photograph gives it a whole new life, more in tune with the way we see in our mind’s eye. In relatively recent years, the mere thought of photo colorization was expensive and time-consuming. The work had to be done manually on the original. But now, there are digital tools available to improve and re-envision light, color, and the overall authenticity of the photograph.

The colorization process involves many layers, literally and figuratively. Before working on the photo file, the artist must first evaluate the history behind it. The specific time period informs color palettes and materiality. Knowing the location then directs elements of style or landscape. Sometimes, this information is gained through conversations with the photo owner; sometimes, it is achieved through estimation or historical records. Either way, this background is key to an accurate colorization process.

In adding color to black and white photos, focusing on the smallest of details is vital. Creating multiple layers and varying the opacity of each layer mimics the oil painting technique known as “glazing,” which is essentially building transparent layers upon an opaque foundation. Multiple layers upon one another give a greater depth and tonality to the photograph. Characteristics such as hair, eyes, skin, and clothing have to feel natural and real. 

It’s like a visual riddle to solve and an intricate coloring book at the same time. The entire process combines patience, intuition, understanding grayscale for color matching, and skillful blending techniques. 

Our memories exist because of our experiences. And our experiences take place in color. To colorize a black and white photo humanizes whatever the subject matter. Color takes people, places, and events that feel so far in the past and brings them to new light. Seeing color yields sensation and provokes emotion. 

Viewing a color photograph of the demonstrators at Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights Marches in 1965, or one of aviation heroine Amelia Earhart, amongst countless black and white photos evokes relatability,  honoring life, new connection, and nostalgia. Colorization allows our descendants and history to be viewed from a new perspective.

By Jenn Cohen, the founder of Facsimile.

Jenn Cohen's picture

Jenn Cohen is the founder of Facsimile.

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1 Comment

Memory is mutable, and influenced by context.
There's been a fair bit of work done by Elizabeth Loftus, around interviewing within an investigative context. Further, memories of events that never happened may be induced.

To your thesis, the process of colouration will alter memory.

It's fascinating and complex subject matter.