Image restorer Adam “AB” Cannonwho sometimes spends up to a month refining American Civil War photographs, says the AI programs that color in black and white photos do not represent the real history.
Cannon trawls the digital archives of institutions like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution to obtain high-resolution images in the public domain that he can use as source material for his project Alive: The Colorful Civil War.
Kanon says betapixel He mostly uses Photoshop to create his gorgeous detailed and lively images of people born about 200 years ago.
My process first starts with loading huge files into Photoshop. Some individual TIFF image files can be up to 1.5 GB in size,” he explains.
“These photos, in particular, are over 150 years old – many of them have serious damage. I start by restoring and repairing any damage. This step alone can take several hours.”
Cannon says he diligently removes every single speck of dust.
“Automatic filters can remove dust particles in one stroke, however, they sometimes misinterpret facial features such as moles and birthmarks as dust and remove them,” he says.
“I think this would cause a huge injustice to the sitter. I want to preserve their image as much as possible.”
After adding dozens of layers to enhance and sharpen it, Cannon is ready to add color to the image. However, he says he “grabs” the minute details to ensure historical accuracy.
“I frequently consult with my network of historians, collectors, and fashion experts. For things like uniforms, there are often samples out there that I can reference for color,” he explains.
For other details like colors of dresses worn by unknown women, no color reference. I am deliberating on the most likely and most applicable color for each piece of clothing. I learn new things daily.”
There is now artificial intelligence (AI) Programs that can colorize images in an instant. However, Cannon is a fundamentalist and says that these automated tools “do not do past justice”.
“These tools are tainted with bias and do not take into account real history at all,” he says defiantly.
“I think the commitment and effort towards faithful representation is meaningful and distinguishes manual coloring from AI coloring,” he adds.
“Because I’m processing a digital file, I don’t modify the original in any way – so I see my coloring as a complement to the original rather than replacements.”
Canon will spend 10 to 15 hours of eye-drying on each Civil War photo—and that time can get longer if there are many seated people or elaborate environmental details.
“The longest I’ve ever spent painting a picture was over a month – to get everything to a point that I felt was satisfying,” he adds.
Says betapixel His childhood fascination with the Civil War led him to color pictures from that era.
“I was particularly drawn to these images because of their clarity. I was able to stare into the faces of real people who lived over 150 years ago. It was a transformative experience for me,” Cannon explains.
“I realized that for some of these people, these were the only photographs ever taken of them. I began to see sitters as more than just frozen characters in the past. They became human beings. People who felt, heard, and saw the world just as we feel it now.”
“I immediately recognized an opportunity to apply my technology to these images to further improve their clarity and relatability through restoration and color.”
Canon has been coloring and improving old photos for nearly a decade. He works with museums, historical societies, and families to breathe new life into old photographs.
“I have shared so many images from this project online that some of them have been viewed over a modest 30,000,000 times. It is so satisfying to know that people feel a kind of human connection to the past that I hope to elicit in my work,” he says.
Cannon’s ultimate goal is to publish the images in a book and to produce an accompanying documentary.
“I want to immerse viewers in the lead-up to the war, the war itself, the era of Reconstruction – all with sheer color and clarity as if they were watching the scenes as if they were there.”
Some historians have Speak against coloring and upgrading old photosdescribing it as “nonsense”.
Canon agrees that black and white photos don’t need to be enjoyed with color, but argues that the lack of shapes “forces us to see the past as a world away.”
“Our ancestors saw the world in true, vivid clarity just as we do, however, their photographic techniques simply weren’t able to capture the critical dimension of color,” he says.
“Now, thanks to digital technology and extensive research, we can look back and see the world as they saw it.”
Cannon hopes that color will make the past more relatable and accessible, as he believes it gives contemporary viewers more empathy for those who live in the past.
“I think it’s comforting to share this part of human contact with real people who have lived generations before,” he adds.
Image credits: All photos courtesy of AB Cannon Photo Restoration.