44 Colorized Portraits That Reveal Historical Figures As They Truly Were

Published June 28, 2021
Updated November 8, 2023

From Geronimo to Gandhi, these colorized photos breathe new life into the past.

Harry Houdini In Black And White
Harry Houdini Colorized Portraits
Helen Keller In Black And White
Helen Keller Colorized Portraits
44 Colorized Portraits That Reveal Historical Figures As They Truly Were
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Trapped in black and white, historical figures often seem just that — historical. But colorized portraits remind us that these famous people from the past were real human beings with hopes, fears, and dreams. However, adding color to historical photos is easier said than done.

Jordon J. Lloyd from Dynamichrome, who colorized a number of the pictures in the gallery above, describes the meticulous details that a colorizer must consider as they add new pigments to old photos.

"A face, for example, can be broken down into over 15 different layers of color that make up the entire anatomical structure of the face," he said.

Those layers of color can change depending on ethnicity, age, and even weather conditions. Sometimes a colorizer has to use as many as 20 different colors in order to capture complicated elements like blood flow.

But that's just the beginning. Someone colorizing an old photo must also think about its place in history. Colorizers may consult diaries, government records, and old advertisements to find the right colors and shades.

Once this step is done, they have to consider another factor: Light.

"Knowledge of how color interacts with light and surfaces is also a great way to add authenticity and the extra effort makes it harder to distinguish between a colorized photograph and the genuine article," noted Lloyd.

Colorizers like Lloyd must make educated guesses based on what they can see. They study elements like shadows and the location of light as they decide how (and where) to add color to a photo.

These elements help colorizers gently pull figures from the past into the present. For example, an army general must wear the right color uniform. Otherwise, the colorization wouldn't be believable. And someone posing with long shadows needs the right kind of light to signify a sunset. If it's not there, then the image might end up looking unnaturally bright or dark.

Colorized Portraits

Wikimedia Commons/Ryan StennesA colorized portrait of Amelia Earhart, the famous female aviator.

But why add color to old photos in the first place? Although photo colorization has increased in popularity in recent years, some question whether it's "right" to colorize old photos. They firmly believe that the past should be left in the past — in its original form of black-and-white images.

However, others argue that adding color to old photos can help humanize people from the past — and serve as a powerful reminder that these historical figures were once full of color in real life.

One well-known colorizer named Marina Amaral explained her decision to colorize a photo of a 14-year-old Holocaust victim named Czesława Kwoka as such: "I wanted to give Czesława the opportunity to tell her story, which is the story of so many other victims. I wanted to emphasize that they were not numbers or statistics, they were real human beings."

There's no question that colorized portraits of historical figures have made a major impression on some modern-day people. On a Reddit page dedicated to colorized photos, one user commented on a photo of Abraham Lincoln: "I feel like I'm looking at the man, and not the legend."

In the gallery above, a number of men and women from history make an appearance in color. For instance, there's General William Tecumseh Sherman, the fiery redhead who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War and led the terrifying "March to the Sea" through Georgia.

Meanwhile, the vibrancy of Marie Curie's lab brings to life her dangerous work in understanding the power of radioactivity. Ida B. Wells' powerful gaze and period clothing demand attention in color. And Theodore Roosevelt's colorized image brings his jawline and blue eyes sharply into focus.

Even seeing some of history's controversial figures can be a powerful experience. In the face of Grigori Rasputin, a dash of color adds a menacing twinkle to the eye of one of Tsarist Russia's most infamous figures.

While perusing the gallery above, you can experience the past with fresh eyes. And you can see historical figures like Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Winston Churchill as their contemporaries did — in vivid, dazzling color.

After flipping through these colorized portraits of historical figures, take a look at these colorized photos of World War I. Then, check out these photos that show the Civil War in striking color.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "44 Colorized Portraits That Reveal Historical Figures As They Truly Were." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 28, 2021, https://allthatsinteresting.com/colorized-portraits. Accessed May 21, 2024.