They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, probably more if there’s color to them. Dan Jones and Marina Amaral have put together a collection of digitally colorized photographs from around the world spanning the years 1850-1960. The book moves chronologically by decade. Most of the photos have been enlarged and enhanced, and there’s a good mix of single-page and two-page spreads. Accompanying each photo are a few paragraphs describing the subject and historical background.

Naturally, the time frame of the book is restricted to a period of 90 years when black-and-white was the prevalent photographic medium. Obviously, there are far more world events and photographs than could realistically be colorized or put into the book, so the authors had to choose what they wanted to show. The results are very interesting and do well to illuminate what life and people looked like from around the world at that particular time.

One thing I noticed was that the earlier photographs had less saturation in their colors than the later photographs. This is probably due to the fact that early camera technology (in the mid to late-1800s) did not produce very high-definition (i.e. detailed) photos. So, to highly saturate the colors would make them look strange. Indeed, some of the older photos in the book resemble paintings because of their lack of detail. It’s no real fault of the authors or photographers.

The writers note that colorizing a black-and-white photograph is no easy task, either from a technical or historical standpoint. The process requires extensive research on what things, such as clothes or objects, would have looked like, and sometimes there is simply no description regarding the color. Therefore, some artistic license and best guesses are called for. Perhaps that sash or coat was more of a maroon rather than a vermilion red color. Who knows?

A minor critique I have is that the selection of some of the photos is a little strange. There are a number of well-known photos, but also a great many portraits and photos of seemingly obscure people and objects. I couldn’t help but wonder why they chose that particular photo of King So-and-So or why they included a photo of object ____. The reader may be left wondering, “OK, so it’s another photo of yet another monarch or a photo of a bunch of ships. So what?” As a result, without the accompanying text blurbs, some of the photos may lack context as to their significance.

Seeing the World Differently

I like to use this book as a supplement to my history classes. In many ways, a colorized photo brings more relevance to the topic for the students. I show students the original black-and-white photo and ask them to describe what they see. Then, I show them a colorized version and see if their interpretation of the photo changes. Some students practically have their minds blown. 🤯

The value of colorized photos is that the viewer can get some sense of what things may have looked like at the time. Look no further than Peter Jackson’s 2018 WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, which features vibrantly colorized footage (with interpreted sounds and voices added). Of course, the colorization only goes so far and can occasionally be misleading with really old photos which display more muted colors. This is to say that some of the colors aren’t as vibrant as they would’ve been in real life. When we look around, we see very bright and bold colors, but in older photos that have been colorized, the colors appear muted and somewhat sepia-toned. However, again, that probably owes more to the technical limitations of the times.

Overall, the book isn’t a text-heavy world history narrative. It’s something you put on your coffee table for guests to browse through at parties, but that doesn’t detract from its value. It’s really about the nicely colored photographs, seeing how we were long ago, and getting a better mental image of a long-lost moment in time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (Very good/worth your time).

Rating: 4 out of 5.