Here at The Memory Lab we’re committed to providing our customers with beautifully preserved photos and much treasured imagery, that can be shared down the generations. The popularity of our scanning and photo preservation services continues but we’re always listening to our customers and adding more strings to our technical bow! We can’t deny that there has been a huge demand for colourisation of old black and white photos since we started “trialing” this towards the end of 2021 and whilst we continue to develop in this area of expertise, we’re finally at a point where we’re really proud of our colourful creations. In order to provide this service to the best of our ability, we’ve had to research colourisation skills, digital techniques and best practice; whilst always being mindful of cultural and historical authenticity. With that in mind, we’ve taken some time this week to delve further into Colourisation; exploring its history, it’s artistry and it’s controversy…..

The history of applying colour to photos can be dated back almost as far as photography itself! People were used to ogling at beautiful colourful oil paintings, so as early as 1855 photographers tried all sorts of methods to introduce colour to their work- with varying results! The first attempts incorporated the use of dye to wash over the entire photograph, before hand-painting was eventually introduced. Hand-painting was a lengthy and painstaking process! One of the first artists to hand-paint photos was the Swiss painter Johann Baptist Isenring who applied various pigments via heat application (we’ve since learned it was as technical as breathing all over the photograph – how lovely!) to his mono-chrome pictures. Not exactly a modest guy, it was said that he often compared his photographs to “accomplished works of art”.

Hand-painted photographic landscape by Isenring

The so-called “Golden Age” of hand-coloured photography continued to develop through to the 1940’s where the middle classes purchased coloured versions as a sign of wealth. A variety of oils, pastels, pigments and crayons were all used over the decades and popularity of the artform eventually broke out into the mainstream until coloured photographic film was more widely available. 

Fast Forward through the technological ages and the notion of digitally colourising photos remains a popular but sometimes controversial process with the argument surrounding “ historical integrity” at the core. The popularity of colouring pictures clearly representing points in history or those taken during moments of cultural significance continues to divide people today.For some, colourising popular photographs in the public domain offers a new perspective and encourages a better understanding of that particular moment in time, but for others it’s a mark of disrespect and potentially regarded as needless manipulation. Put another way, how do we know that the fallen soldier’s hair was that brown in a war photograph taken in France 1914? How blue were the jeans of the construction workers pictured in that famous Rockefeller shot?  We don’t know anything for sure. Which is why the ethical debate on colourising rages on. 

Colourised photo of Golden Gate Bridge Construction.

Colourised version of “Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper”.

At The Memory Lab, we believe that colouring black and white photographs is at best, the application of an “informed guess” of what the colours may have been. We use Photoshop for our colourisations and are continually involving the customer in providing us with accurate details of the colours (clothing, skin-tones etc) in order to preserve the integrity of the original photo.We’re extremely careful when agreeing to a commission of this nature, because authenticity is important to us. It’s this concern of authenticity that supports our rule of always steering clear of working on photos that would raise ethical concerns, contain branding and commercial information or that are already in the public sphere.

Our colourisations are intended for the customer who has given us their consent to transform them in this way, and in turn,offer a wonderful new perspective on the image which can help to draw out hidden detail and create a deeper connection. The coloured versions are seen as a supplement of their treasured black and white counterparts and we’re delighted to hear of our customers’ reactions when they share their new restorations with families and friends alike. Contact us today for more information or to ask any questions you may have on photo restoration!