Digital Color Reconstruction: A Statement of My Process

Kick-off and Discovery
Numerous hours of research are the cornerstone of my successful color reconstruction projects. Beginning right after the initial project kick-off, I consult with archivists, historians, and research communities securing resources to this end. Digital reconstruction requires thorough investigation of written descriptions and restoration or preservation notes as well as detailed comparison to current day imagery and "vintage" images.

At any given point, I will research a wide variety of topics — physics, anatomy, anthropology, agriculture, geology, even meteorology — in pursuit of full historic accuracy in my color reconstructions. I take into account the total environment and the effects of weather and atmosphere on the materials depicted; the age of structures; how natural formations might be affected by wear, use, and time. My research extends further to the fiber content, construction, quality, and wear of fabrics used in clothing or uniforms worn by persons depicted in the photos. I also consider the subjects’ cultural heritage, employment, and the known conditions of the area and society in which they lived. I delve deeply into the natural materials — soil types, limestone and granite quarry specifics, wood resources and any decorative elements — metals and paint catalogs, etc. All are sourced to ensure the accuracy of the details of the image.

When facts and science do not provide me with enough specifics, I rely on my knowledge and skill. My own extensive study of photographic techniques, lenses and film substrates enables me to determine particular colors and conditions evident in an image. I know the particulars of how light interacts and reflects off varied surfaces, what weather conditions complicate the atmosphere of the time, and more. Specialized knowledge of the limits of older lenses and processing procedures enables me to correct the shortcomings in the editing and reconstruction processes.

The Color Reconstruction Technique
Once the research is complete, I begin coloring the image using layers of color, added one at a time, to bring realistic depth to each element. This layering effect is akin to the techniques of old-world painters of the Renaissance and early 17th-18th century Dutch Masters, only it is done using digital technology. Rich color, deep toning, and vibrant shading ensure accurate, authentic color restoration. I do not employ trending or popular color "styling" as a color reconstruction technique, however. 

The Result
Results are, in a word, startling. Well-known black and white images become head-turning, even heartrending, full-color experiences for the viewer. Not surprisingly, these images are often mistaken for actual color photography, which is why I take care to protect and copyright (as artist derivative works) each color reconstruction. Oftentimes, with such close work on an image, I discover details that aren't apparent (or easily seen) in the original, adding an element of surprise to viewing these color-reconstructed images.*

Early photographic technology lacked a crucial ingredient — color — the gap between the world as we see it, and the abstract, black and white world we see captured on film and in print. This gap of perception forces us to either take a leap of imagination in order to envision what the photo cannot supply us, or to ignore it and move on. What a shame to move on. To this end, as early as the invention of the medium, skilled artisans applied color to photographs by hand, in an attempt to convey the vibrancy and immediacy of life in color and to give the viewer as rich, vibrant and complete a depiction as possible.*

I absolutely admire and appreciate fine art photography and certain images are purposefully black and white for reason of artistic expression. I also understand that there was a time when color processing was impractical and excessively expensive for everyday use. Like the gap in perception, this is a space I expect to fill using modern digital technology with its unparalleled degree of control. Meticulous historical research and skillful color reconstruction gives all of us better understanding and comprehension, enabling everyone to experience the past more directly, realistically, and authentically.

I am dedicated to exposing the truth, in full-color, of some of history’s most vital and important events, locations and stories when sharing some of history’s greatest black and white photography with today's modern, digitally-savvy audiences.


*Parts of this statement were articulated in conjunction with fellow color reconstruction specialist Jordan J. Lloyd of Dynamichrome in the UK. I've adopted his term "color reconstruction" as the best description of this field of color of absolute historic accuracy, without artifact or artistic license.