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Color My World: Dreamland Part Two

Back in October I wrote a story entitled “Dreamland” in which I included an extraordinary photo of Buffalo’s Niagara Street from the early 20th Century.  The image shows a busy street packed with urban detail and activity.  Like all photos of that era, it is in black and white.  We think of  history, before color photography, as a black and white existence. We know they had color back then, but the colors of the time, to a great extent, are lost to history and to our conscious perception.  While it is possible, through archives of historic artifacts and paintings, to piece together the palate of color that would have been common then, our perception of the past is mostly colored by black and white images.  In a way, this color barrier makes the distant past less accessible to us.

Lucky for us, photo artist Sanna Dullaway has focused her considerable photoshop talents on bringing some of these old black and white images to life with color.  Her colorization of this Buffalo image is a magnificent example of how powerful a bit of tint, hue, and tone can be. With color the richness of the street pops from the image.

She explains her technique below:

I use Color blending mode in Photoshop. That’s the easy part. The hard part is actually making the colors look realistic – color physics is complicated and no matter how good you can become the colors won’t ever be 100% correct. So it’s an educated guess. I research as much as I can, if it’s a building which is still standing today, I know what color it will be. The bank pictured in the photo does not stand today but I found vintage postcards from the 1900s depicting the bank in either dark brown or light grey rock. Since the rock was very light it couldn’t be dark brown so I went with grey.

I do have to take into account if the photograph was taken during overcast, which will make the colors of any given object less saturated, or during the bright of day, which will make them awash in sunlight (like Buffalo). Sunsets/sunrises would make them even more warm in color. If there’s a person in a uniform, the model is most likely preserved in a museum or worn in re-enactments, and I use that as a reference.

All other colors I have to guess, but I use real life as a reference point – trees had the same shade of green back then as they do today. People certainly didn’t wear neon-colored clothing, but more duller colors like red, brown, greens and blues.

She goes on to say about her work:

No colorized photo can replace the original black and white picture, but each will give you a new perspective on how your grandparents and great-grandparents used to see the world. Rather than living in the misty grey world we usually see, the sun shone just as bright, if not more brightly, on them. If color film were available, our grandparents would surely use it. Let me be clear — Colorizing does not intend to replace the original black & white photo, only offering a new perspective — to help people of today coming closer to the past.

When I add color to a photo there is much more involved than simply painting the grass green. Cool shadows and warm highlights, reflection and radiosity must all be considered. Is the person in the picture old or young? Human skin comes in an entire spectrum of flesh tones that vary in saturation and hue not just between people, but across the surface of each person’s skin.

While old photos may seem to be missing data that must be “made up,” they are often of very high quality and contain visual information and cues that help in the re-creation and which can be rescued from the ravages of time. Take a look at my portfolio for some examples.

As Dullawy notes above, many old images are often very high quality, containing a lot of information.  That is the case with the Buffalo image taken by the Detroit Publishing Company on a large glass plate negative, which were several inches wide in each direction.  With large negatives like this the recorded images are highly detailed.  Looking at these details in Dullaway’s colorizations do really bring this early era to life.  It’s not hard to imagine yourself walking down that street, parking your Model T, working in that office.

You can see many more of Sanna’s images on her Facebook Page.

You can also purchase her services to colorize your own photos.  You can contact Sanna through her web page here.


Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

View All Articles by David Steele
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