A Vibrant Past: Colorizing the Archives of History

Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME / Original image by Alexander Gardner / Library of Congress
Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME / Original image by Alexander Gardner / Library of Congress
1862. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand at Antietam.

Technology has given us an incredibly wide-ranging view of modern presidents; chief White House photographer Pete Souza’s images of Barack Obama show him in countless locations and situations, from meetings in the Oval Office to candid shots of the president eating ice cream with his daughters on vacation.

The photo archive of Abraham Lincoln, the subject of this week’s cover story, is a much smaller set due to the technological limitations of the time; most of the existing photographs of the 16th president are posed portraits, the majority of which only show Lincoln from the chest up—and all are black-and-white.

But TIME commissioned Sanna Dullaway to create a more vibrant document of Lincoln through a series of colorized photographs produced in Photoshop. After removing spots, dust and scratches from archival Lincoln photographs, Dullaway digitally colorizes the files to produce realistic and modern versions of the portraits, which look like they could have been made today.

The 22-year-old Swedish artist began colorizing images in January 2011, when she was listening to the debut album by rock band Rage Against the Machine. The self-titled album’s cover art is a black-and-white picture of a self-immolating monk taken by AP photographer Malcolm Browne. “I thought the normally fiery flames looked so dull in black and white, so I…looked for a way to make them come alive,” she says. Dullaway colorized the flames, and eventually, the entire picture. She then posted the image on Reddit, and it instantly went viral.

Since that first experiment, Dullaway has continued to colorize a wide range of historical figures, including Albert Einstein, Che Guevara and Teddy Roosevelt, each of which has generated viral buzz online. She’s also used the approach on a number of iconic photographs, such as Eddie Adams’ harrowing image of a Vietnam police officer the moment before he’s about to execute a Vietcong prisoner. In each of these renderings, Dullaway’s use of color is subtle and sophisticated—yielding images that maintain the photographic integrity of their originals, while presenting a look at how these photographs may have come out had color photography existed at the time. That nuanced ability to handle color runs in the family; Dullaway’s father is painter.

The images take anywhere from 40 minutes to three hours to produce, and for the young artist, it’s a way of bringing a contemporary perspective to older works. “History has always been black and white to me, from the World War I soldiers to the 1800s, when ladies wore grand but colorless dresses,” Dullaway says. “By colorizing, I watch the photos come alive, and suddenly the people feel more real and history becomes more tangible.”

Lincoln is at the heart of her next project, a book of Civil War images rendered in color. “I felt like it was a good place to start because the war is well documented in the Library of Congress and started roughly around the same time the camera was first used commercially,” Dullaway says. “And a war offers to chance to cover many subjects at once, and present the events of that time as our eyes would see it today—in color.”

Sanna Dullaway is a photo editor based in Sweden. See more of her work here.

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