The earliest surviving photograph dates from 1826, and since then photography has immeasurably changed our relationship to the past. Instead of just imagining what people looked like and how they dressed, photos made it possible to see things as they really were.
It took until 1935 for color film to take off; before that, viewers had to apply their imaginations to sepia- or gray-toned pictures. But if you’ve ever tried to do this, you know how hard it actually is to mentally project color onto a black and white photo. When you look at them, you tend to think the world back then was a dull, colorless place.
Peter Jackson meticulously colorized film footage from World War I in his latest documentary
That’s why the new trend of colorizing old photos is so arresting. It forces you to look at the past with new eyes — and the results are pretty amazing, thanks to obsessive digital artists taking hours to painstakingly "paint" old pictures in Photoshop.
Perhaps the best example of this work is Peter Jackson’s documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old," in which his team color-corrected and standardized hours of authentic film footage of World War I to stunning effect.
It’s not just professional filmmakers who are touching up the past. Artists and history buffs across the internet are getting into the act, too. Here are some of our favorite full-color historical photos.
This photo showcasing Albert Einstein’s sense of humor is already quite famous, but seeing the genius in full color reminds us that he was a real person — not just an impossibly brilliant scientist. We bet he was a blast to hang out with!
This photo of a car accident in Washington, D.C - before and after colorization - shows that some things never change. Even when cars were still new, taking your eyes off the road could lead to a disaster — and plenty of people would stop what they were doing to have a look.
Big Jay McNeeley played a mean sax, and you can almost hear the crowd going wild in this photo. The color heightens the drama in a way that makes you feel like you could step right into this 1953 L.A. concert venue.
The Dust Bowl
Dorothea Lange’s famous photos of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the American Plains helped highlight the suffering of the era on a human level. Seeing her work brought to life in full color reminds us that these events happened to real people, in very real places.
So much of how people think of the Golden Age of Hollywood relies on black and white movies and stills. That’s why it’s such a refreshing change to see an icon in her full humanity. This photo of Marilyn Monroe captures her vulnerability as well as her star power.
Seeing the Wright Brothers’ original aircraft in full color shows in breathtaking detail what a miracle it was that they managed to get airborne. The gossamer wings look quite fragile, which gives new appreciation of the audacity of that first flight in 1903.
Photographers carefully documented the waves of immigrants coming to the United States through Ellis Island. Seeing these photos in color show the remarkable variety of clothing and cultures that made up the New York City melting pot of the early twentieth century.
It’s easy to forget that trains were once an integral means of transportation. This photo of a steam engine chugging through downtown Syracuse, NY in 1905 is a vivid reminder of the pre-automobile era.
Most photographs of women from the early twentieth century are carefully composed, formal affairs, with hardly a smile in sight. That’s why we love this relaxed group of dancers from the National American Ballet as they simply sit and enjoy each other’s company.
What can we say about this? The attention to detail in the colorization is astonishing, with every glint of metal and hair on the worker’s arm working together to create a fully realistic color photograph. If this is the future of colorizing, we’re all in!
Preserving Your Own Photos
If these beautiful photographs have inspired you to take a closer look at your own family photos, MyHeritage offers an app that automatically colorizes your personal photos to breathe new life into your family history. The results are sure to amaze!
Whether you colorize your treasured photos or enjoy them the way they are, preserving a pictorial record of your ancestors is important for everyone. StoryTerrace allows you to add pages of vintage snapshots and portraits to your memoirs to bring your personal autobiography to life.
To find out more about how to write your own autobiography, get in touch to schedule a free consultation, or sign up for our newsletter for more inspiring articles about ways to preserve the past for future generations.