We’re very lucky to have the world’s foremost digital colourist, the amazing Marina Amaral, as a judge for 2019’s Historic Photographer of the Year competition. We caught up with her in Brazil to ask a few questions and here she is in her own words…
First off, thank you so much for agreeing to be on our judging panel! We’re very lucky to have you onboard and we’re hoping Historic Photographer of the Year 2019 is going to be our best year yet. What drew you to the competition?
The competition touches on two of my favorite subjects: history and photography, and it also gives us all of us the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of several different people, which is fascinating!
It won’t come as any surprise to you that we are history lovers, but when did you first get interested in historical photography?
My mother is a historian, so I grew up surrounded by history books. I distinctly remember a coffee table book that she had, which was basically a huge book of photos of several different places in Egypt. That thing blew my mind. It was amazing.
Since then, I’ve been fascinating by history, and photography officially became a huge thing in my life when I started to colorize historical photos in 2015. It’s part of my daily life now.
We saw an article in The Spectator magazine describing you as the Wizard of Oz as you ‘whisk us from black-and-white Kansas to shimmering Technicolor Oz!’ How did you first get involved in the colourisation of historical photographs?
It was completely by accident. I’ve always enjoyed spending my time in Photoshop since I was really young, but I had no idea that it was possible to apply color to black and white photographs until I found a collection of World War II photos in color back in 2015. I had no idea of how it was done, but I wanted to try.
I decided to experiment, started to try many different techniques, until I finally managed to develop my own. I was (and still am) really obsessed with the idea of creating realistic colorizations, so I never stopped practicing. Eventually, it became my profession.
We’re guessing the process isn’t a fast one! How do you go about taking a 150-year old photo and making it look like it was taken yesterday?
It’s all about patience and attention to detail. There’s nothing special in my technique, but I spend countless hours refining the details, changing the colors, making adjustments. I cannot fathom the idea of publishing a bad colorization.
Of course, some end up looking better than others, especially because the end result depends a lot on the quality of the original photograph – but I always try my best. The historical research is also of ultimate importance, because it adds to the authenticity of the colors.
Of the photographs you’ve done, do you have a favourite? If that’s too hard, what about a top three? A straw poll in the office picked out your stunning image of Lewis Payne after he was arrested in 1865 as a co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s killer. That image could quite easily have been taken this morning!
Lewis Powell is definitely one of my favorites! It’s also the photo that made The Colour of Time happen.
Dan [Jones] invited me to work on a book after he saw that one. I also love the “Nine Kings” and the “New Jersey Shore”. Czeslawa Kwoka’s portrait, the 14-year-old girl that was murdered in Auschwitz, also has a special place in my heart. It’s not the most technically complex, but it’s a photo that means a lot to me.
And what are you expecting to see from this year’s entries? The 2018 winner was pretty spectacular and even though you weren’t on last year’s panel, why do you think the judges chose that one as the winner?
I’m not expecting anything less than having to agonize to pick a favorite. I saw some of the submissions on Twitter and they are so good!
We’ve got a copy of The Colour of Time, the book you put together with the equally-brilliant Dan Jones and we love it. Here now follows a question in three parts – What prompted you to do it, how has it been received and was it as much fun to do as we think it was?
The Colour of Time is the result of one of the most amazing opportunities I’ve had in my life. It’s a project that we spent two years working on, dedicating days and nights. We worked so hard to make this book be more than a coffee table book, and it makes us very happy to see that people really received it as a history book.
Working with Dan is a lot of fun. He is like a male version of me. We are both committed to the principle of working hard to achieve amazing things, and that’s why we work so well together, I think. I have no idea of how many colorized photos and captions we discarded in the process of creating the book because we thought we could do better.
I’m sure the people at our amazing publisher were freaking out while we were both making changes to the book within less than a week of sending it to press. Dan is a genius and working with him is a privilege for which I am very grateful.
On a more sombre topic, your collaboration with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and a collection of academics, journalists and volunteers tells the story of the Faces of Auschwitz. Why did you want to embark on such a project?
I decided to create Faces of Auschwitz after I saw Czeslawa’s colorized portrait touching so many people. I wanted to do more, and so I presented the idea to the Auschwitz Museum, and they were really supportive since the beginning.
Telling those stories and individualizing the victims is very important to show that the Holocaust affected human beings, not numbers. The project is on hold now because we are working on a documentary which is due to be released next year. But it’s something that I hope to continue doing for a long time.
Lastly, we saw a piece about you in wired.com which said that for you, colourisation isn’t just a hobby, it’s an obsession. An online article said of The Colour of Time ‘Dan Jones’s words do the business, but it is Amaral’s photographs that awe. She changes the way we see a period or a person.’ Is that the ultimate praise for your work?
I understand that the colorized photos are a big part of the book, but it wouldn’t be as good as it is if I didn’t have Dan working with me, and I really mean it. As for Wired and all the praise my work has been receiving, I can only be grateful, honored, and work even harder to live up to the expectations.