Photo restorer Adam “AB” Cannon, who sometimes spends up to a month improving Civil War portraits, says AI programs that colorize black-and-white photos don’t take into account the real story.
Cannon scours the digital archives of institutions such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian for high-resolution public domain images that he can use as source material for his project. ALIVE: Civil War in Color.
The cannon tells PetaPixel that he primarily uses Photoshop to create his wonderfully detailed and vivid portraits of people born around 200 years ago.
“My process first starts with loading large files into Photoshop. Some single TIFF photo files can be up to 1.5 GB,” he explains.
“These images, in particular, are over 150 years old, and many have extensive damage. I begin by restoring and repairing any damage. This step alone can take me several hours.
Cannon says it diligently removes each speck of dust individually.
“Automatic filters can remove dust particles all at once, however, they sometimes misinterpret facial features such as moles and birthmarks as dust and remove them,” he says. .
“I believe it would do the babysitter a great injustice. I want to preserve their likeness as much as possible.
After adding dozens of layers to enhance and accent, Cannon is ready to add color to the image. However, he says he is “obsessed” with minute details to ensure historical accuracy.
“I often consult my network of historians, uniform collectors and fashion experts. For things like uniforms, there are often existing specimens that I can reference for color,” he explains.
“For other details like the colors of dresses worn by unknown women, no color reference exists. I deliberate on the most probable and viable color for each garment. I learn new things every day.
There are now artificially intelligent (AI) programs that can colorize photos in an instance. However, Cannon is a purist and says that these automatic tools “do not do justice to our past.”
“These tools are tainted with bias and completely disregard real history,” he says defiantly.
“I think the commitment and effort to faithful representation is significant and sets manual colorization apart from AI colorization,” he adds.
“Since I’m manipulating a digital file, I don’t alter the original in any way, so I consider my colorizations to be compliments to the original rather than replacements.”
Cannon will spend a mind-blowing 10-15 hours on each Civil War portrait – and that time can be even longer if there are multiple models or elaborate environment details.
“The longest I’ve ever spent on a portrait was over a month – to bring everything to a point that I thought was satisfactory,” he adds.
labor of love
He says PetaPixel that a childhood fascination with the Civil War led him to colorize portraits from that era.
“I was particularly drawn to these portraits because of their clarity. I was able to contemplate the faces of real people who lived more than 150 years ago. It was a transformative experience for me,” says Cannon.
“I realized that for some of these people, these were the only photos that were ever taken of them. I started to see the models as more than characters frozen in the past. They became people. people who have felt, heard and seen the world as clearly as we do now,” he says.
“I immediately recognized the opportunity to apply my techniques to these photos to further enhance their clarity and relativity through restoration and color.”
Cannon has been coloring and enhancing old photos for nearly a decade. He works with museums, historical societies and families to breathe new life into old photos.
“I have shared several images from this project online, some of which have had over 30,000,000 views. It’s so gratifying to know that people feel the kind of human connection to the past that I hope to evoke in my work,” he says.
The ultimate goal for Cannon is to publish the footage in a book and produce an accompanying documentary.
“I want to immerse viewers in the time leading up to the war, the war itself and the era of reconstruction – all in color and with immense clarity as if they are witnessing the scenes as if they were there. “
Some historians have spoken out against the colorization and scaling of old photos, calling them “nonsense”.
Cannon agrees that black-and-white photos don’t need color to be appreciated, but argues that the lack of hues “forces us to see the past as a distant world.”
“Our ancestors saw the world with real, vivid clarity, just like us, but their photographic techniques were simply not able to capture the critical dimension of color,” he says.
“Now, thanks to digital technology and extensive research, we can go back in time and see the world as they saw it.”
Cannon hopes color can make the past more relatable and accessible, as he believes it gives the modern viewer more empathy for those living in the past.
“I think it’s heartwarming to share that human connection with real people who lived generations before,” he adds.
Other work by Cannon is available on his website, Instagram and Facebook.
Picture credits: All images courtesy of AB Cannon Photo Restoration.
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