‘Colour allows us to understand in a deeper sense’: Hitler, Churchill and others in a new light

The story of global conflict is all the more powerful when it isn’t seen in black and white. Artist Marina Amaral explains her latest work

In 1918, in Washington DC, nurses carry a Spanish flu patient. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

On a stretcher lies a patient; his ashen face protrudes from under a green blanket, eyes closed. Two uniformed women carry the stretcher, wearing face masks. It looks as if it’s a lovely day: the sun is shining, the shadows dark, the sky blue. But this is not a happy picture. Is the casualty even alive, or has he already been taken by the killer virus that has wrapped itself around our planet like a python, squeezing the life from it?

The photograph was taken at an ambulance station in Washington DC. Within the past couple of months? It could have been, if it weren’t for the uniforms (I don’t think today’s nurses wear lace-up leather boots) and the stretcher. In fact, it was taken more than a century ago, in 1918, during the Spanish flu epidemic, which killed so many millions. The photographer is unknown, forgotten. But the black and white picture was recently “colourised” by Marina Amaral.

“Yes, it’s really crazy,” she says, from her home in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, about that picture’s sudden and frightening present-day resonance. “We had no idea when we were working on this photo and selecting it for the book.” The World Aflame, Amaral’s second book with the British historian Dan Jones, breathes new life into the story of global conflict, from the run-up to the first world war to the end of the second. It follows the same arc as their previous collaboration – The Colour Of Time, a history of the world from 1850 to 1960 – but this time more closely focused, zoomed in on war. Jones is on words; Amaral does the pictures.

Members of the Hitler Youth surround their leader at the Berghof, his holiday retreat in the Bavarian Alps. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

She starts by sourcing black and white photos: George V on horseback; the young Winston Churchill, fresh-faced and confident; momentous events – life in the trenches, the Christmas truce; suffrage and suffering; the Great Depression, famine, fascism, Hitler and Mussolini; more war, genocide and destruction, the atom bomb, liberation; a little bit of love as well. And she colours them, digitally.

We’ll come back to the process. But first, while we’re talking about modern-day resonance, Amaral says the recent rise of populism and the far right in many countries (not least her own) is part of what motivates her work. The warning signs are there, she says. “You read some of the things people were saying then, and you can find people saying the exact same thing today.”

In her homeland, run by far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, the then culture minister Roberto Alvim recently borrowed heavily from Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister for propaganda archaeology best during the second world war, in a speech: “Brazilian art in the next decade will be heroic and national, he said, as Wagner played in the background (he was later sacked).

“Things like that motivate me to keep doing my job,” Amaral says. “It’s why I believe in the value and importance of colourising photos. Only when people really understand what happened, and why, will they be able to do something, to not let those moments or those radical people rise again and transform the world into something ugly and unbearable.”

5th London Rifle Brigade soldiers with German Saxon regimental troops during the Christmas truce in 1914. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
A Jewish couple in Budapest after liberation in 1945. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Free State soldiers fight Republican forces at O’Connell Bridge in Dublin during the Irish civil war, July 1922. Photograph: Brooke/Getty Images

Amaral, who is 26 and lives with her mother and grandmother, is unimpressed with the way the populist Brazilian president is dealing with the sequel to Spanish flu. Bolsonaro has dismissed coronavirus as media “hysteria” and a “bit of a cold”, shunned social distancing, and even joined his supporters in anti-lockdown protests. “I think he will commit mistakes that will cost the lives of many people,” Amaral says. When we speak, her grandmother isn’t well; they don’t know if it’s virus-related, but she’s worried. “I’m scared, to be honest.”

The story of how Marina Amaral came to colour in the past is a very 21st century one. When she was 12, she had a blog and wanted to add some graphics. She didn’t know how, nor did she know anyone who could help. So, using YouTube tutorials, she taught herself to use Photoshop, which she has been exploring ever since.

A degree in international relations was abandoned; it didn’t excite her. But her mother is a historian and Amaral has always been fascinated by the past. After stumbling across an online collection of colourised photographs of the second world war, she decided to have a go herself. Sourcing pictures from free image libraries, she developed her own Photoshop techniques and published the results on Facebook and Twitter, where she soon gained large followings. That’s where Dan Jones came across her. The historian saw what she had done to a photograph of Lewis Powell, one of the men executed in 1865 for conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, his vice-president and the secretary of state (Amaral transformed Powell from a nondescript 19th-century Confederate soldier into a smouldering James Dean). Jones got in touch, the rest is… well, you know what. In colour.

American soldiers disembark on Omaha beach in Normandy on D-day, June 1944. Photograph: Robert F Sargent/Getty Images

Historical research is the most important part of the process. “Before I sit down and start colourising a photo, I will analyse it deeply, often with the help of historians and experts, gathering as much detail and information as possible and cross-referencing it all with visual and written descriptions of the time. I have to dig to find pieces of a puzzle and fill in the gaps.”

The process can be time-consuming, depending on the number of details and the complexity of the image. “I will spend hours, days or weeks working on a single photo. There are some that do not work in colour for various reasons – maybe the original was damaged, or it just doesn’t look right – so then we have to discard it and start again. It’s important to have an artistic eye, otherwise the photograph will not look real.”

Sometimes, the result looks less like a picture taken in the last couple of months and more like one painted centuries ago. Her colourised photograph of the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein volunteering as a nurse in Paris at the start of the first world war, has something of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait about it.

The most powerful of the 200 photographs in the book are not the loudest ones: the action, horror, the famous and infamous faces. I’m not sure what it adds to know that the hole in Mussolini’s head leaked what looks like pink blancmange on to the body of his girlfriend, Claretta Petacci. Robert F Sargent’s famous D-day photograph, Into The Jaws Of Death, of American soldiers disembarking on Omaha beach, is powerful in colour – but no more so than it is in black and white. More startling is another landing craft photo, of US troops in Operation Torch, the 1942 invasion of North Africa, because this one was taken into the faces of the soldiers. One face in particular: a blue-eyed boy who looks about 15, stares into the camera. Is that fear? What happened to him, you wonder? What was his name?

For me, Amaral’s colourisation process is most moving when applied to pictures of children. The addition of eye colour, skin tone, freckles – suddenly, they look like children you might know. And children, especially, relate to her colourised pictures because they are witnessing a reality that is more similar to their own, she says. Amaral’s day is made when teachers email to say her work has helped their history classes, or engaged their students more.

Czeslawa Kwoka, 14, photographed at Auschwitz. ‘It’s very powerful in black and white,’ Amaral says, ‘but in colour you can see her lips are bleeding.’ Photograph: © Auschwitz Memorial and Museum

Of six pictures of Adolf Hitler in the book, the one that stays with me is one taken at the Berghof, his holiday retreat in the Bavarian Alps. He is surrounded by a group of adoring boys. They are mostly very fair, and one is wearing lederhosen; otherwise, they could be the scout group that meets down the road. They are all members of the Hitler Youth.

But the most haunting picture shows another child, 14-year-old Czeslawa Kwoka, who was murdered at Auschwitz. It was, Amaral says, one of the most difficult pictures she’s worked on. “It’s very powerful in black and white, but in colour you can see that her lips are bleeding. She had just been beaten by a guard. You can really see the fear in her eyes, but you can also feel her courage. Colour allows us to understand the reality in a much deeper sense.”

The photograph of Czeslawa Kwoka is also part of a special project Amaral is involved in, Faces Of Auschwitz, a collaboration with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, for which she is colourising registration photographs from the museum’s archive. It’s the hardest work she has done, she says: “But I think it’s also necessary. They send me the pictures but also the documents, so I have to spend hours looking at their faces, knowing that, after the photo was taken, they were murdered. I need to have that feeling, otherwise I will be transformed into a machine and the whole purpose will be lost.”

Amaral knows that colourisation isn’t for everyone. Some see it as ersatz or interfering, even sacrilege. But it isn’t a matter of choosing one or the other, she says. “My intention is not to replace the original, but to give people the opportunity to see history from a different perspective.” Also to see it more as the photographer saw it, and the way it actually was. The photographer might not have had the choice, or the technology, to take a picture in colour. But looking through the viewfinder, that’s what they saw; the past – even its grimmest, darkest hours – was not in black and white.

A young refugee shelters in a church in Barcelona in 1939, after her home in Madrid was bombed during the Spanish civil war. Photograph: Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

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