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History in Color

I’ve looked at old World War II photos of my grandfather more times than I can count, studying his face for signs of what he was thinking of, what details of his home life he was desperate to get back to, what exactly he was most afraid of. And I always hit a wall: There is a basic, universal understanding of what he must have felt as a human, yes; but as for the specifics, I find my imagination either too deeply reductive (“Life was simpler back then…”) or entirely anachronistic, steeped in contemporary nuance that he would have had little taste for.

Sometimes, what makes history (both familial and global) so hard for me to contextualize is the fact that its vestiges – crude photographs; choppy, truncated audio clips removed from a fuller lush landscape – make it too easy to “other” its players from modern life. The folks in photographs capturing historic events that we should have, by now, a hundred times over, learned the hard way from, just seem so far off; they’re so black-and-white, so one-dimensional and indistinct and distant from the sharp, nuanced, colorful texture of modern-day life. And I find myself trapped in the same too-little / too-much approach I slip into with my grandparents’ histories when I try to imagine their day-to-day life.

Marina Amaral is working on changing that. Through Photoshop, the Brazilian artist is breathing life back into landmark photographs with obsessive detail to color.

From Wired:

The process can take more than a month for each image. Amaral usually begins scouring online archives like the Library of Congress, the US National Archives or the British Library. She peruses them for source material, careful to select photographs she knows she’ll be okay staring at for the next few weeks. “I’m going to spend hours working on it,” she says.

Then comes the research. Amaral contacts historians and other experts who help her identify the right colors for objects, whether an ancient pot or a military uniform. She also references present-day photographs of the locations, ideally shot at the same time of day. And she studies people’s faces in real life to understand how light interacts with skin. “I try to be as accurate as possible with the colors, because I’m aware that this is history,” she says. “It’s not my job to modify it and make it look the way I want it to look.”

Pretty incredible. If you’re interested, Bored Panda has a great gallery comparing the original black and white copies to Amaral’s colorized versions.

View Amaral’s portfolio here.