They say a splash of colour can work wonders for our state of mind, and the same can be said for history, too—just ask Brazilin artist Marina Amaral who has carved out a career digitally colouring black and white photographs such as World War Two images or portraits of esteemed figures like Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jnr. As you can see, the results are mesmerising, and, occasionally, kind of disconcerting—but in a very cool way. “I’ve always held a deep fascination with history,” says Mariana. “It’s funny, because my mother has a history degree, but I’m far more interested in it than she is. But she never tried to influence me, it was a natural process.”
Mariana believes that with colour comes a greater connection. “We live in a colourful world, receiving much visual stimulation all of the time,” she says. “It is hard to relate to a historical figure when you see them in black and white because this gives us the sense that this person only existed in history books, which is absolutely not true. The colours allow us to build a bridge with the past, and that is what I try to offer through my work.”
Do you feel a responsibility regarding the images?
“In a way, I do. That’s the reason why I choose my photos very carefully, or why I research so much before publishing a new image.”
Marina collates collections from public archives, governmental organisations and public libraries then contacts historians for help in identifying the most accurate hues, as well as referencing the locations against contemporary photographs and studying a range of skin tones. I ask if she’s ever had feedback from anyone connected to the people in the pictures.
“Yes, this happens quite often,” she says. “I was once contacted by a woman whose grandfather owned the building where American soldiers waved a flag at the end of the second world war in one of the photos I restored without knowing the story of that building. She sent me a beautiful message, and it was very special. It’s always very exciting when that happens.”
Do you consider colourisation an art form?
“I think so. You can master all the techniques, but if you do not have an artistic look, the photos will not look right. I need to make artistic choices all the time because it is impossible to figure out the original colours of every single object you see in an image. I’m always studying things that apparently have nothing to do with what I do, but that in fact makes all the difference, such as physics and traditional painting techniques and so on.”
Which piece are you most proud of?
“The portrait of Czeslawa Kwoka, the little girl that was murdered in Auschwitz at age 14. I wanted to give her a chance to tell her story and wanted to give people the opportunity to see her face in colour for the first time. I truly believe that once you see a photo in colour, you are able to connect in a more intimate way with the subject. And thankfully, I think I managed to achieve my goal.”
What makes the process even more fascinating for Marina are the small details that reveal themselves that were not visible while in black and white. “It’s interesting because I feel that I know better my subject once I finish restoring the picture,” says the artist. “All the people of our past, be they good or bad, were human beings like all of us. It is important to understand and know the mistakes of our past so that they are never repeated again in the present or in the future.”
Next year, in conjunction with acclaimed historian and writer, Dan Jones, Marina will publish The Colour of Time, the first in a series of books to bring ‘the past to life in the present’. “Dan already had the concept in his mind, and he invited me to develop the project with him,” beams Marina. “We are covering the birth of the modern world from the 1850s-1950s, using 200 exclusive photos colourised by me and accompanied by Dan’s exciting narrative. It’s a huge book, full of intriguing and important information presented in a way that anyone can understand. I’m really proud of the project and I can’t wait to see what people will think.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces