Photo restorer Adam “A.B.” Cannon, who sometimes spends up to a month enhancing American Civil War portraits, says that AI programs that colorize black and white photos do not account for real history.
Cannon trawls through 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: The Civil War in Color.
Cannon tells PetaPixel that he predominantly uses Photoshop to create his wonderfully detailed, vivid portraits of people who were born some 200 years ago.
“My process first starts by loading the huge files into Photoshop. Some single TIFF photo files can be as large as 1.5GB,” he explains.
“These images, in particular, are more than 150 years old–so many have extensive damage. I begin by restoring and repairing any damage. This step alone can take me several hours.”
Cannon says that he diligently removes every single speck of dust individually.
“Automatic filters can remove the dust particles in one fell swoop, however, sometimes they misinterpret facial features such as moles and birthmarks as dust and remove them,” he says.
“I believe this would do the sitter a great injustice. I want to preserve their likeness as closely as possible.”
After adding dozens of layers to enhance and sharpen, Cannon is ready to add color to the image. However, he says that he “obsesses” over minute details to ensure historical accuracy.
“I consult often with my network of historians, uniform collectors, and fashion experts. For things like uniforms, there are often existing specimens I can reference for color,” he explains.
“For other details such as the colors of dresses worn by unknown women, no color reference exists. I deliberate over the most likely and viable color for each piece of clothing. 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 “don’t do our past justice.”
“These tools are tinged with bias and do not account for real history at all,” he says defiantly.
“I believe the commitment and effort toward faithful representation are meaningful and sets apart manual colorization from AI colorization,” he adds.
“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.”
Cannon will spend an eyewatering 10 to 15 hours on each Civil War portrait — and that time can get even longer if there are several sitters or elaborate environment details.
“The longest I’ve ever spent on a portrait was over a month–to get everything to a point I felt was satisfactory,” he adds.
Labor of Love
He tells PetaPixel that a fascination with the Civil War stretching back to his childhood led him to colorize portraits from that era.
“I was particularly drawn to these portraits because of their clarity. I was able to gaze upon 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 photos that were ever taken of them. I started seeing the sitters as more than figures frozen in the past. They became people; people who felt, heard, and saw the world just as vividly as we do now,” he says.
“I immediately recognized an opportunity to apply my techniques to these photos to enhance their clarity and relatability even further through restoration and color.”
Cannon has been colorizing and enhancing old photos for nearly a decade. He works with museums, historical societies, and families to breathe fresh life into old photos.
“I’ve shared several images from this project online some of which have been viewed over a humbling 30,000,000+ times. It’s so fulfilling to know that people feel the sort of human connection with the past I hope to evoke in my work,” he says.
The ultimate goal for Cannon is to publish the images 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 reconstruction era–all in color and immense clarity as if they are witnessing the scenes as if they were there.”
Some historians have spoken out against the colorizing and upscaling of old photos, calling it a “nonsense.”
Cannon agrees that black and white photos do not need color to be enjoyed, but argues that the lack of hues “forces us to view the past as a a distant world.”
“Our ancestors saw the world in vivid, real clarity just as we do, however, their photographic techniques were simply not capable of capturing the critical dimension of color,” he says.
“Now, thanks to digital technology and extensive research, we can peer back into time and see the world just as they saw it.”
Cannon hopes that color can make the past more relatable and accessible, as he believes it gives the modern viewer more empathy for those who live in yesteryear.
“I think it’s comforting to share that bit of human connection with real people who lived generations before,” he adds.
Image credits: All images couresy of A.B. Cannon Photo Restoration.