My Colorful Past: "Bridging a gap between history and art using photo colorization"

My Colorful Past: "Bridging a gap between history and art using photo colorization"
(Image credit: Lewis Hine / My Colorful Past)

Whether you consider it art, science or somewhere in-between, the process of photo colorization is more than just an interesting technical feat or an act of visual expression; it's a way to breathe life into our history, and transform the color-free faces of the past into real, relatable people. 

This is the work that has consumed Matthew Loughrey, the man behind My Colorful Past, for the past four years. What started with an innocent question from his little boy burgeoned into a quest to restore color to historic photographs and film reels spanning the gamut from the American Civil War to the NASA space program. 

My Colorful Past's photo colorization work has been featured in National Geographic and is used as a teaching material in schools, with a GoFundMe project in the works to support an expansion of the materials' educational remit. 

We spoke to Loughrey about how his work came about, how it has been received by historians and academics, the divide between color and black-and-white in his own photography, and how he received a (very polite) death threat over his commitment  to colorizing photographs from the past…

Digital Camera World: How would you describe your work for those who have never encountered it – what is My Colorful Past, what does it do and what is its goal?

Matthew Loughrey: It started out in early 2015 as a means to bridge a gap between history and art using colorization. An engagement exercise for learning, both online and in person. It was fast recognized as an option for museums and libraries to enhance their own visitor experiences and this took the project to a completely different level. The goal is to educate through the repurposing of historical photography using colorization, animation and even 3D. 

Before we delve deeper, tell us about your history in pure photography. When did you first pick up a camera, and what inspired you to do?

The first time I used a camera of my own was the late Nineties – a trip to Jessops on the Oxbode in Gloucester and I was hooked. It was a Pentax MZ-50 and it was the excuse to travel that I'd been looking for. I'd get my negatives developed downstairs in our local Boots because they had some large matte Agfa paper and it was affordable. I was inspired by the results more than anything in particular, that I could see something through a viewfinder and the developing process could scale that up to poster size. I thought that was magical.

To what degree did/do you edit your own photography – are your images mostly complete at the point of capture or do they come to life in post-production?

When I used the MZ-50 I don't think post editing even existed; I followed the guides in the monthly magazines that I'd buy in town. I learned about all the effects you could create simply and mechanically, using measurements of time, release cables, a tripod, a torch, filters and all the rest of it. I'd practice around the Gloucester docks, photographing the quays and venturing out to the countryside in the good weather. I have a couple of those very photographs on the wall here at home.

Time away from photography, perhaps 2004 to 2010, saw me come back to a very different world. It was acutely digital and what's more the software was something I wasn't afraid of. I'd grown up in the world of Dan Silva's Deluxe Paint series on the Amiga – I used to spend hours upon hours using it.

This digital world was most welcome and far less expensive, too. It cost a lot of money to develop prints and purchase film in the late Nineties; I remember getting one print developed three times over to address an issue with the blueness of the sky. If I'd had access to the technology of today I would have been able to fix that in a moment

Your own photographs – what would you say is the percentage of black-and-white versus color images you shoot, and did this influence your interest in colorizing historical images?

Black-and-white always stood out to me in that it was ‘storyful’. I think the absence of color made me question a scene more and look for the meaning. In the digital era I have taken perhaps 70% of my photographs in black and white. The art of photography had, oddly, no influence on the My Colorful Past project; it was more the art of understanding software and machines that gave it life, and this constant feeling of being drawn to the past to understand better the present.

So how did your journey with colorization begin – we understand that we have your oldest son to thank for putting you on your current path…

It is true that my son asked was the world always in black-and-white. He was very young at that time. I answered him as best I could and I think that day marked the advent of this project – it was a confirmation of sorts.

Your first work that we really started noticing was the photographs of Alcatraz prisoners. What was it about these people that spoke to you?

I had visited Alctraz Island a very long time ago with my family and it etched itself into my mind. We arrived at the prison by ferry and took a guided tour. It was remarkably cold, and to see the cells was something else. I knew about the Anglin brothers and my partner Sarah encouraged me to get in touch with their nephew, Ken Widner, about bringing their mug shots to life. A long story short, Ken liked very much what I was doing and between us both we set about a plan to bring the images of his uncles to life. He kindly supplied me with imagery that isn't ordinarily obtainable – it was fascinating.

Your work on the ‘Astro’ project, featuring colorizations of astronauts like John Glenn, really jumpstarted your recognition. Tell us how this project came about, and what it has meant in your career.

I saw how video content was favored online and asked myself how I could create some form of video art. I decided to combine art and space to tell a story using narration, and hired the voice talent of Micah Cottingham to tie it all together. The results were seen by a National Geographic picture editor, who in turn had a staff writer call me up out of the blue for an interview.

Some weeks later the Astro project and the reasoning behind My Colorful Past had itself a full page in National Geographic magazine. I am always as humble about that as possible; it's a serious achievement by any standard, but what it truly meant to me was that I was on the right track with these ideas. I had a new lease of confidence about my goals, and people were watching and listening. 

Aside from space and Alcatraz, much of your work focuses on the American Civil War, Native Americans and the Old West. Is an area of personal interest for you, or something that developed through the course of your work?

Having been born and raised in the UK, American history was not something I was familiar with. If not for this project, I would not have happened upon some of the greatest documentary photography I have seen. I fast became obsessed with the work of Mathew Brady and AJ Russell – both had a foot in Civil War photography, and used the most wonderful cameras to document it. 

It is in fact their work that inspired me to take the project in a direction that I wouldn't have considered at the onset, that being the education sector and a project that has been underway for the last two years.

From the perspective of your Irish heritage, your images of Michael Collins and Ireland’s Rising seem especially significant. How has your work been received on home shores?

I received a lot of enquiries about color work in relation to the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016. I'd built relationships with picture desks abroad and now had the opportunity to do so here in Ireland; it was purely good timing that enabled this as My Colorful Past was already being spoken about and everything fell into place. The project's always gotten great support here around historical events and personalities.

Conversely, have you encountered any resistance from people who feel that the original images should be left as-is – or even that you’re committing some kind of vandalism? What is your reaction to that kind of thinking?

I used to answer that question by saying that the brain is designed to see in red, green and blue, which of course it is. However, I think I was attempting to argue or defend this work when really there's no need to. We either like something or we do not and that's an essential part of living.

On the extreme end of the scale I was emailed out of the blue by a very irate gentleman from New Zealand, who threatened to track me down and “murder” me for colorizing an 1884 glass negative of Maori King Tawhiao. I say “gentleman” because he had the courtesy to at least inform me of his plans. On a serious note, though, the response is overwhelmingly positive.  

How do you consider your role, in the main – artist, historian, restorationist, preservationist, cultural interpreter, or something else?

I only see myself as the person behind My Colorful Past. I have a strong vision of where the project is headed, and that's where I maintain focus. I am working very hard to deliver a sense of relatability that is essentially unexplored in the education sector. That affords me different roles. All that matters is what's presented, and that it tells a story.

I would point out, too, that on this journey I am not alone, in some respects. I believe in sharing ideas and combining efforts across a range of abilities to realize a project fully. This is where the success of a project lives. Too many folks keep ideas to themselves, and then wonder why they never truly came to pass.

A lot of people are fascinated by image colorization, but few are able to meet your standard for doing so. How do you approach an average project, what kind of work or time input might be involved, and when do you know when an image is “finished”?

I inherited some abilities from my parents in both art and engineering. At times those abilities feel like gifts, and I am of the firm belief that is what sets my work apart. You can't teach it; you just have this ability you are grateful for, and you are compelled to explore it any way you possibly can.

Of course, I have methods and a digital workflow that form a part of every colorization you see. In that respect I do not consider myself different to any other digital artist, it's just very difficult to explain “how” I approach any given photograph. The beginning isn't always the beginning we assume, nothing is orderly about it or linear as a process, and patience is the key ingredient.

In addition to stills, you’ve recently been colorizing film, and even vintage stereographs. How did this come about?

In 2015 I started to gather and organize glass negatives into specific groups after noticing that some libraries had failed to keep a number of glass negatives together. I told myself that some of them may have been dismissed as duplicates. I didn’t inquire as to why and instead, I began to research the anomalies myself and focused on the work of Mathew Brady and his associates, particularly that of AJ Russell. It fast became a sub-project.

I found out that Brady and his photographers had been inadvertently animating their subjects. I am not referring solely to stereoview cards but instead to an accidental result when using ‘multiplying’ cameras. Sometimes four or eight images were exposed to a single plate in order to provide a faster service which in turn, I assume, was cost-effective for Mathew Brady’s expanding enterprise. 

The images would expose from slightly different angles and I've spent the best part of two years transposing them to form a completely new library of material, a venture into the world of anaglyphs.

And your work on the images from Brady and co is going to make its way into a book…

The results of transposing stereoviews and converting them to anaglyphs are stunning to see. It brings the viewing experience into another realm. For some months I have been brainstorming their application with Keith Harris Ph D and we concurred that there is a need for the work to be published in book form. A US publisher has seen the work and shares our vision – something really special is underway.

You’ve recently launched a GoFundMe page (which can be viewed here), to help fund your work and particularly some of these new projects. Tell us a bit about the campaign and how it can affect the scope of your future projects.

Already my work is being demonstrated to history students at a private high school in Los Angeles by Keith Harris PhD. The initial feedback was immediate and indicative of a need for the results to be accessible on a far wider scale. The GoFundMe donations are going to help build a curriculum-specific digital platform, which can be accessed by educators the world over for the benefit of their students.

Your work comprises some of the most important, influential and interesting cultural figures – everyone from Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy, to Muhammad Ali and Marilyn Monroe, to the Kray twins and Buffalo Bill. Is there a particular project that most captivated you, and what would you love the opportunity to work on?

In 2017 Thanet District Council got in touch and asked that I decipher for them the exact color scheme of the iconic Dreamland Cinema sign on the Margate seafront, all from a series of black-and-white photographs taken in the 1930s. 

They understood that I had a system in place here that could decipher the original photographs and it was a success. To see this work undertaken in 'real world' terms was very uplifting, every time I see it I can say to myself 'I did this and it works'. Now the Margate seafront is, in part, lit up by something I had a hand in.

Where future opportunities are concerned I am very aware that there is talk in circles about the call for a new American Civil War documentary. It's been 30 years since Ken Burns brought his craft to our screens, and what I am doing here has been recognized as a visual storytelling option should a new documentary come to pass. I think that would be very special to be involved with.

Finally, if people take just one thing away from your work, what do you hope it is?

A new understanding. Sometimes it's just me, looking at a person come to life through the coloring of footage or stills, and I see them as they were. For a short while I am the only person on Earth to have that opportunity, and it's humbling. It's not time travel of course, but it's every bit as thought-provoking. And to afford those in education that opportunity – that's what it's about.

Read more: 

My Colorful Past – photo colorization project aims to bring history to life
Best film: our picks of the best 35mm film, roll film, and sheet film for your camera Change summer into autumn using extreme color adjustments in Photoshop

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James Artaius

The editor of Digital Camera World, James has 21 years experience as a journalist and started working in the photographic industry in 2014 (as an assistant to Damian McGillicuddy, who succeeded David Bailey as Principal Photographer for Olympus). In this time he shot for clients like Aston Martin Racing, Elinchrom and L'Oréal, in addition to shooting campaigns and product testing for Olympus, and providing training for professionals. This has led him to being a go-to expert for camera and lens reviews, photo and lighting tutorials, as well as industry news, rumors and analysis for publications like Digital Camera MagazinePhotoPlus: The Canon MagazineN-Photo: The Nikon MagazineDigital Photographer and Professional Imagemaker, as well as hosting workshops and talks at The Photography Show. He also serves as a judge for the Red Bull Illume Photo Contest. An Olympus and Canon shooter, he has a wealth of knowledge on cameras of all makes – and a fondness for vintage lenses and instant cameras.