Marina Amaral has been fascinated by history and photography for as long as she can remember. As a child she taught herself Photoshop by watching tutorials on YouTube. Five years ago, the budding digital artist stumbled upon a collection of colorized World War II photos on the Internet and “immediately felt an urge to try to create something similar,” said Amaral, 25, in an interview from her home in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
The results are two stunning books of historical images colorized for the first time. Her latest work, “The World Aflame: A New History of War and Revolution: 1914-1945,” showcases 200 vividly colorized photos with text by Amaral’s collaborator, the British historian Dan Jones.
For Amaral, coloring black and white photos creates a deep resonance and brings the subjects to life “as flesh and blood,” instantly provoking questions about distant lives and how we view history.
“People become less abstract, more real,” said Amaral. “They are no longer characters taken out of a history book, but human beings who went through moments of frustration, happiness, fear, just as we do today. And once we feel that … the barrier imposed by the decades and centuries that separate us no longer exists. We can finally relate and connect as human beings.”
That connection is especially important on Memorial Day weekend as long-ago wars fade from memory. For Amaral, her photos “raise some discussions that can change the way we understand and see history today,” she said. “This is important especially for children.”
So far, the reaction to her books has been “amazing,” Amaral said.
One Second World War veteran said that her colorized images made him remember in even greater detail everything he had experienced on the battlefield. “Once we look at the dirty or bloody uniform of a soldier, we almost feel the violence of war,” she said.
For this photo entitled “Into the Jaws of Death,” Amaral pored over historic descriptions of the weather on June 6, 1944 — D-Day — for the Allied landing on Omaha Beach. “The colors have to change and adapt accordingly,” she said. “This is why the landing craft looks a little bluer than it would on a sunny day, for example.”
“It’s like I’m there again seeing all those people.” That’s what a veteran of the Second World War told Amaral when he saw her images of Holocaust survivors, including this couple in the Warsaw Ghetto.
For photos like this one of the Nazi surrender of Paris on August 25, 1944, Amaral searches out modern photographs of the location where the picture was originally taken and compares it to visual descriptions in books and historical documents. “Only after I manage to find and gather all this information, I’ll begin the colorization process itself, which can take hours or even weeks of work,” she said. “Everything is done manually in Photoshop. It’s like a giant coloring book.”
Historical research is a critical part of Amaral’s process. She begins by sending the photos she is working on to historians so that she can duplicate the colors of the uniforms, the medals and the vehicles.
For this photograph showing a scene from the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940, Amaral said she paid close attention to tiny details in the soldiers’ uniforms, including the silver buttons and the colors of the national flag in a detail on one of the helmets.
Amaral said this photo taken from the cockpit of a war plane over Poland during the Nazi invasion in September 1939 underwent the same rigorous research that saw her interviewing experts on the Second World War.
This photo shows life in a British munitions factory where women known as “munitionettes” were dispatched to make ammunition after hundreds of thousands of men were recruited to the war effort. “The color choices are 100 percent based on artistic guess,” said Amaral. “There was not really a very specific detail to identify, or any helpful information, so I had to use some creativity.”
In this image, which shows soldiers loading cannon during the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916, Amaral looked at weather conditions “because it will affect my color choices,” she said. “This is something that I do mainly by observing details contained in the images themselves: like the shadows and the clouds or their absence in the sky.”
In colorizing the portrait of Field Marshal August von Mackensen, it was the blue cross that stood out for Amaral, who noted that it was Prussia’s highest military honor — Pour le Merite — which he was awarded by the Prussian King on November 27, 1914. The cross speaks to his prestige and experience as one of the German army’s greatest commanders and veteran of wars stretching back to the 1870s.
Manfred von Richthofen was known as the Red Baron because he painted his plane red, said Amaral. For context, she relied on the German fighter pilot’s autobiography. “For whatever reasons, one fine day I came upon the idea of having my crate painted glaring red,” he wrote.
Amaral used modern photographs of preserved uniforms from the First World War to colorize this image from the Battle of Passchendaele — one of the bloodiest conflicts on the Western Front.
In this portrait of an African-American soldier, known as a Harlem Hellfighter, Amaral relied on paintings and modern photographs to get his mossy green World War One uniform right. Harlem Hellfighters, who were drawn from the New York National Guard, were known for their uncommon valor and spent more time in combat than any other American unit during the First World War.
The minutiae from uniforms of various countries that she culls from drawings or paintings informed Amaral’s study of these prisoners of war of various nationalities.
Amaral doesn’t like to use the word “restoration” to describe her work. After she has finished her research for a particular image, such as this photo of Irish Free State soldiers fighting in the Irish civil war, she begins to select colors “based on artistic choices — always trying to be as accurate as possible.”
Before beginning her colorization process on this photo of a soldier in Burma, Amaral did what she does with many World War Two pictures — she sends them to historians and experts in order to research the original colors of the uniforms. “Only after I manage to find and gather this information, I’ll begin the colorization process itself,” she said.
For this image which shows the fitting of a prosthetic mask on a wounded soldier, Amaral identified the uniforms as American and French and went to work reproducing the original colors as closely as she could, she said.
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