ONE TO FOLLOW: @OLDHKINCOLOUR
Looking at a black and white photo, you tend to feel a disconnect with the people and places depicted. It may be a person you know or even a place you’ve been, but it can appear glum and lacks the texture of modern life. Colourization of old photographs is not new but has become increasingly more accessible with AI technology. Now giving us a glimpse of Hong Kong in the good ole’ days, complete with full colour is @OLDHKINCOLOUR.
Painstaking colourizing and re-animating old Hong Kong photos to share with the world, they offer up a broader historical context of the city and its people, allowing us the see the past in all its glory. Their Instagram page has become a living gallery of vintage photos from a variety of periods, many showing the intersection of local and colonial culture.
The most intriguing of them all are the images that depict places in Hong Kong you can still see and recognize today. Like Pedder Street in Central, in the 1940s, the building still stands today and hasn’t changed much in this time. In recent years, it famously housed Shanghai Tang and Abercrombie, whilst in the 40’s it appears to be home to a round-the-world travel agency.
We picked the brains of the talented folk behind this page and to share a little bit about the laborious process. They start by enhancing the quality of the image and upping the resolution first, think of when they yell ‘ENHANCE’ in every cop show. Using cutting edge artificial intelligence, they are able to fill in the gaps, remove any significant scratches or marks and generally make the image more crisp.
In the post-editing phase, as they call it, the @OLDHKINCOLOUR team start colourizing the pre-processed images manually. You may wonder how they land on certain hues, as it can be tricky to determine what original colours may lie in a black and white image. So a little creativity and historical savvy go a long way. Based on a wide variety of historical sources, such as newspapers, magazines, official documents, old advertisements, memoirs, and video recordings, they can bring Hong Kong back to its technicolour form.
Beyond that, there are plenty more factors to consider when colourizing an image. One being lighting, say when a photo is taken during the golden hour you can see long shadows cast on the ground, as well as an orange glow in parts of the picture. For a cloudy day, colours may appear more washed out. Lights that reflect off certain surfaces will also affect the tone of the image, so lighting can be a massive undertaking when considering pigmentation.
Seemingly small details like this are crucial for recreating a photo and not only make it historically exact but also allow us to experience the environment and the subjects as close to reality as possible. It’s no small task that requires hours of research and thinking, making it an art form in itself.
Harrison Forman took these original monochromatic photos showcased here today in Hong Kong during the 1940s-50s. Forman was an American photographer and journalist who often contributed to The New York Times and National Geographic. These images are now kept at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in the US, who granted permission to @OLDHKINCOLOUR to share and colourize these precious moments in time.
For more of Hong Kong in its former glory, follow @OLDHKINCOLOUR on Instagram.