'Retrographic:' Historic Photos Colorized in New Book

'Retrographic:' Historic Photos Colorized in New Book

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Whether you’ve thought about it or not, psychology plays a huge role in successful photography. Even when considering technical aspects of photography like composition, exposure, depth of field, etc., psychology is part of the “why” behind proper camera settings. It's no surprise then that color plays a big role in emotionally provocative photography, and Michael Carroll recently published his book, “Retrographic” to document a project in which already emotionally-charged photographs from history are colorized to evoke even more emotion.

The book, which is available on Amazon, involved the work of a community of colorization enthusiasts and professional retouchers over a period of about 12 months, as well as a forward from the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. Retrographic showcases a variety of historic photos taken by some of the most iconic photographers in modern history including Joe Rosenthal, Alfred Eisenstaedt (who’s instantly recognizable “V-J Day in Times Square” photo takes the cover), and Malcome Browne. The motivation behind Retrographic was to present historical images, and history as a subject, in an accessible way to appeal to as wide an audience as possible through colorization. Carroll, who isn’t a colorization expert but a journalist, got involved in the project after stumbling upon an online community of hobbyist and professional colorizers while researching upcoming stories he was covering. He was instantly captured by the way the colorizers were able to bring impactful images from history to life through colorization.

Colorization, or the act of adding color to a photograph through technology, is widely achieved using Photoshop, although far more is involved beyond adding colored layers and painting color onto black and white photos digitally. Carroll’s team went through painstaking efforts to research proper tonality and color for each photo and the time period it was captured. Beyond the hours, and sometimes days, it takes a colorizer to work on one individual photo, colorizers spent a tremendous amount of time researching genuine colors for materials of the period, taking into account seasons, daylight, and location for each photo. Members of Carroll’s team also spent considerable amounts of time looking into historical documents, consulting historians who were experts on each time period, as well as interviewing eyewitnesses that were there at the time the photos were taken.

Beyond the technical aspects of creating Retrographic with his team, Carroll also had to tackle the process of obtaining permission to alter and display some of the most impactful photos in history. According to Carroll, this was one of the more difficult tasks of the project and took roughly 50% of the 12-month timeline of the entire project. Making sure that all the original black and white images were used lawfully and with proper permission from the copyright holder was of tremendous importance to Carroll and his team. They worked alongside agencies like Getty and the Associated Press to ensure permission for a wide variety of historic photos.

Because Carroll is a journalist, he also went through the effort of researching each photo and the circumstances around each historic moment with the hopes of bringing further insight to the reader of what was happening at the time the photo was taken and ultimately drawing people into a deeper connection with famous photos from the past.

The end result from a team who is passionate about their craft, and connected to their work, is an endearing project that excels at connecting the past and the present through the act of colorization. According to Carroll, being limited to only black and white can create a disconnect for people who only think of history in terms of black and white photos. The hope of Carroll and his team is that colorization takes away the disconnect between the viewer and the subject bringing those of us in the present that much closer to history, breathing life into past events, and those who came before us. 

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Michael Holst's picture

I think the most powerful difference is with the burning monk. Fire doesn't have as much visual weight in black and white. The vivid red/orange flames really come to life in the colorized version. He look's so calm in the photo which is so haunting.

i feel iconic images like these lose some of its authenticity when colored, especially since i know its a rather simple technique with alot of guesswork involved.