Artist Colorizes Old Portraits From 19th Century For Families, Museums And Historical Societies

Published 2 years ago

Adam “A.B.” Cannon, a photo restorer, retouches old portraits from the 19th century and brings them back to life. The artist has been restoring, enhancing, and colorizing old photos for families, museums, and historical societies for almost 10 years now. In an interview with DeMilked, he revealed, “I started by working on old photos belonging to my family and friends. I’ve had a lifelong love for history– so naturally, I began to apply my restoration and colorization skills to historical colorized photos.”

The artist also added, “I frequently comb through digitally available online archives of institutions like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute as they are constantly adding newly scanned documents and photos available freely in public domain.” Check out some of his amazing works in the gallery below.

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Image source: abcannonrestoration

Adam also said, “My favorite subjects to colorize are The American Civil War, The Great Depression era, WWII, and the 1960’s Civil Rights era. One day in my archival deep dive, I started seeing old tintypes, daguerreotypes, and ambrotype “prints” produced by the most cutting edge technology in photography of the Civil War-era in the United States; the 1840’s-1860’s. I was blown away by the quality and clarity packed into these small prints–as they were produced with chemical reactions on metal plates, they have essentially infinite resolution. I was especially blown away by the fact most were over 150 years old. It was like peering through a window into another time, several generations ago. I immediately recognized an opportunity to bring these images to a wider audience with an added dimension of enhancement and colorization.”


Image source: abcannonrestoration

“As I mentioned, I believe colorization can be powerful in making our past more accessible and real. People in these photos didn’t live in a silent, gray world. They saw the world in vibrant color just as we do. My hope with my newest project, ALIVE: The Civil War in Color, aims to remove the veil of age; to help us realize that these people 150+ years ago witnessed slavery, the bloodiest conflict in American history, a presidential assassination, and more highly consequential circumstances in vivid color and clarity. I’m taking steps to publish these photos in a book and accompanying documentary very soon,” he elaborated.


Image source: abcannonrestoration

The artist further mentioned, “From the first time I witnessed a colorized photo, I was inspired by how they seem to transport me back to another time in a way black and white photos didn’t. For me, black and white photos can be beautiful. However, they force us to view events and people in the past as gray, lifeless statues. My hope is to portray their likenesses as accurately and clearly as possible in color so that we can better appreciate and empathize with them.”


Image source: abcannonrestoration

“I’m extremely committed to maintaining the fidelity of the original image. There are many AI tools which can enhance faces, remove dust, and colorize images– however, I never rely on any of these when working with these historical images,” said the artist.


Image source: abcannonrestoration

He further elaborated, “For facial enhancement AI, this technology can create some seemingly favorable results, however, it more often than not uses creative liberties to create data where none existed previously. For example, it can create additional freckles, moles, etc. I believe it is a great injustice to photo subjects to add or remove any of their original features. I instead manually apply dozens of layers of compositing to faithfully enhance, ensuring there’s not a pore or imperfection out of place. Automatic dust and removal filters exist as well, but I painstakingly remove each speck of dust manually, sometimes thousands of tiny dust particles–as these filters are imperfect and can mistakenly remove minute details–also not acceptable for the reason I mentioned above. I also repair more extensively damaged portions of photos, sometimes having to reconstruct entire regions of images which I do as realistically as possible based on historical research.For colorization, I don’t utilize automatic software in this project at all. Colorization software utilizes learning models that are almost never historically accurate at all. The data used to train AI is tinged with bias and attempts coloring with no historical context–so colors are frequently misrepresented as they don’t account for historically viable colors.”


Image source: abcannonrestoration

Talking about his creative process, the artist said, “For things like advertisements or uniforms, I can usually find reference images of modern day photos of each object. I maintain relationships with historical experts, including fashion experts to determine and choose the most realistic and historically viable color options. For other more common and vague objects like the clothing of regular people in photos, it really is an (extensively researched) educated guessing game. Context matters. I research the most common dyes and styles down to the month and neighborhood to ensure the most accurate depiction possible. You can also observe similar modern objects and how they appear in color vs in black and white. I hold a sincere reverence for history, so I’m extremely committed to providing the most realistic depictions as I possibly can. I feel that the commitment and effort toward faithful representation is meaningful and sets apart manual colorization from AI colorization. Since I’m manipulating a digital file, I’m not modifying the original in any way–so I see my colorizations as compliments to the original rather than replacements.”


Image source: abcannonrestoration


Image source: abcannonrestoration


Image source: abcannonrestoration


Image source: abcannonrestoration

Saumya Ratan

Saumya is an explorer of all things beautiful, quirky, and heartwarming. With her knack for art, design, photography, fun trivia, and internet humor, she takes you on a journey through the lighter side of pop culture.

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Adam Cannon, colorised images, colorised photos, digital art, interview, photo restoration, photo restorer, photography
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