The Color of Time–Color brings a century of black and white images to life in new history chronicle

Review by C.J. Bunce

People have been colorizing photographs nearly as far back as the invention of photographs in the early 19th century.  Hand-painted photography took personal photographs from cold and lifeless to something more real, vivid and exciting.  Although methods for actually developing photographs in color existed as far back as the 1860s, it was rarely done.  Mid-twentieth century colorizing became a popular pastime, and so many people can look back to family portraits in color (by hand, with pencil or other coloring) regularly found in the 1940s and 1950s, just as color film became more available to the public.  Attempts of the past to accurately add color to historical images sometimes were made with reference to actual objects or people–such as matching eye color and hair color via reference to paintings or contemporary written descriptions–to ensure the accuracy of color choices.  But no single effort has been made to accurately colorize historical photographs until recent digital technologies made it more possible.  Brazilian artist Marina Amaral has become well-known for her coloring work, and she has teamed up with historian and journalist Dan Jones to create an extraordinary new history text, The Color of Time: A New History of the World, 1850-1960 It is a must-read for history buffs and anyone who could use a brush up on their history knowledge.

Readers first will be attracted to The Color of Time (titled The Colour of Time in European editions) first for Amaral’s 200 colorized images (she has colorized images seen in this book plus many more).  But the book’s value is equaled in Jones’s history text, which stitches together photographs of important subjects from the beginning of the tintype to 1960, when black and white was still prevalent, with a chronology of every major world event and figure in between.  So The Color of Time is, in a sense, a world history textbook (this one is ideal for teaching high school world history or as a supplement to a first year college history survey course) with the added benefit of bringing historical figures to life via color.  Amaral has noted it is nearly impossible to perfectly capture every color correctly (you’d need historical access to every item in the camera’s lens), but Amaral has researched the clothing, objects, and people who are the subjects of this book to get as close as possible.  Historical figures–many presented for the first time in color–include Darwin, Marx, Lincoln, Tolstoy, Edison, Stanley, Schliemann, Pope Pius IX, Sitting Bull, Barton, Twain, Mata Hari, Curie, Einstein, Villa, the Red Baron, Rasputin, Louis Armstrong, Lenin, Stalin, Michael Collins, Elie Wiesel, Hitler, Mussolini, Earhart, FDR, Mau, Gandhi, Churchill, Elvis Presley, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Castro, Guevara, and Mandela.

A surprising number of these photos take on a new life in color.  A spectrum of color in the Times Square photo of a sailor and a nurse in an embrace on VJ Day brings out the happy dispositions of nearby watchers.  The blue sky in a Wright Flyer image accentuates the fragile, finely geometric balance of the famous inventors’ first airplane.  A colorized image from 1900 of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid makes them look like movie stars of the Golden Age of cinema.  Perhaps nothing compares to the beauty of England’s Crystal Palace in 1854–you can almost smell the clear, blue water in the great pool.  Another image shows the tan wooden infrastructure of the Statue of Liberty’s hand, while being built.  The famous 1895 Montparnasse rail crash is even more jolting in color.  But the strangest jolt may come from an image of a handsome young man that could be a young Clint Eastwood–it is instead of a man days before his hanging, for stabbing President Lincoln’s secretary of state while his co-conspirator killed the President a few streets away.

Readers may try to find some commonality between an image of Queen Victoria in 1854 and her great, great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II taking the throne in 1952.  The pair bookends this volume, and demonstrates a lean toward a greater number of British historical events covered by the authors.  That said, world leaders and events are depicted from all over (many demonstrating the long tenure of the British Empire): the Romanovs, the last Empress of China, samurai of Japan, slaves in America, the Sultan of Zanzibar, Hawaii’s last queen, Queen Min of Korea, King Faisal of Iraq, Nepalese at Everest, the Ethiopian emperor, and the king of Saudi Arabia.  Some of the colorful updates will seem more familiar–JFK and the First Lady were pictured in thousands of color photos in the 1960s, and other U.S. presidents like Lincoln and FDR have been the subjects of countless color-added marketing images and other uses over the past century.

As with any world history text, expect what you’d imagine of a century of the human condition–lots of war, lots of deaths–dead bodies from human savagery, hate, neglect, and war dot the pages of this historical account.  It also includes benchmarks of technology, science, and medicine, and the evolution of seaships, planes, trains, cars, and even tanks and other tools of warfare from tomahawks to nuclear bombs.

The book covers politics and conflict very well.  But The Color of Time begs for a second and third volume, perhaps with greater emphases on the arts, literature, culture, and society.

It’s a good history refresher for literally everyone, and completely interesting to see these figures and events in a new way.  The Color of Time is available now in a hardcover edition from Pegasus Books.  Order it here at Amazon.

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