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I Restored and Colorized a Portrait of Every President Who Lived Before Color Photography

I’ve been restoring and also coloring historical photographs for a little over two years. Towards the end of last year, I received a request to work on an image of Abraham Lincoln. Little did I know, this request would change the direction of my work forever.

I posted the completed, now full color, image of Lincoln online and I was really surprised by the response it received. The comments in particular really caught me off guard. Multiple times I got in essence the same response:

“I’ve never really been able to see Abraham Lincoln as an actual person before now.”

I think the greatest compliment someone in colorization can receive is when people don’t talk about their work at all. When someone’s first thought upon looking at a digitally colored face from 1865 is that the picture reminds them of someone they personally know, that’s really awesome.

The positive reaction to the picture of Lincoln led to my decision to not just work on coloring another President but to work on coloring EVERY President who only existed in Black and White. 100 hours or so of work later and I’d completed the project. I then collected the completed pictures together in video form.

Thankfully I made the decision to not work on the Presidents in chronological order. Otherwise the mess of a portrait of the second President ever photographed, Andrew Jackson, may have stopped me working on the project before it even started.

As the Presidents got further back in time, my choice of potential images to work on got more and more limited. Andrew Jackson died shortly after the birth of photography and he seems to have only sat for photographs once or twice.

Therefore, despite the terrible condition of this picture, I still felt it was on balance the best image I had to work with.

Traditional methods of restoration failed me quite quickly, as they typically rely on you using non-damaged parts of the image to replace the damaged parts. With this image, they’re really weren’t any undamaged parts to use as reference.

That was, until I remembered that the original, now damaged, Daguerreotype had been used as the basis for an engraving. While the original image had become heavily damaged in the subsequent 175 years, the engraving based on that image remained pristine.

I therefore combined the two sources together, making sure to adjust for where the engraver had taken some artistic license. It was certainly an odd situation to be using an illustration to restore a photograph but I feel that the end result worked out reasonably well.

With some Presidents, I conversely had lots of pictures to choose from. That was the case with Ulysses S Grant, although with him, the image I would choose always seemed obvious to me:

Despite his time as President, Ulysses S Grant is still most widely remembered today for commanding the Union forces during the Civil War. He got his role in office due to his perceived strengths as a military leader, but he was also criticized during his time in office for not being as good a President as he was a General.

For this reason, I thought it appropriate to represent him as he has always been seen by the public: as a military man first and foremost.

Often with colorizations it’s not the creative or technical issues which make them a challenge, but the motivation alone needed to complete them.

For example: every book, telephone, flag and other miscellaneous item in the portrait I chose of William Howard Taft needed three basic colouring passes: one was for the main colour, one for the shadows and one for the mid-tones.

Sometimes I look at a complicated black and white picture and realize I may have 10 hours of work in front of me to color it. Thankfully I find the process quite therapeutic, so pictures like this are very much an opportunity for me to de-stress and catch up on some Podcasts.

While it’s always interesting to work on more widely remembered historical figures like those shown above, one of my favourite parts of this project was working on some of the less well-known Presidents. One such President, in my opinion, is Calvin Coolidge who I also personally feel was the most valuable colorization in this entire project.

Calvin Coolidge is mostly remembered now as somewhat of a caretaker President who was rather a serious and somewhat stern man. And I think the fact that his portrait only exists in black and white has done a lot to cement this image of a colorless man.

Something as simple as unveiling that he had red hair and freckles can do a lot to help restore someone’s humanity again.

As a slightly weird result of this project’s goal to restore and colorize every U.S Presidential portrait before color photography, I may have also ended up restoring a portrait of a man who was never actually President in the first place…

Upon releasing my (I considered) completed video showcasing the sequence of U.S Presidents I received a comment pointing out that I had not included David Rice Atchison.

12th President Zachary Taylor refused to take his Presidential Pledge on the Sunday when outgoing President James K Polk completed his time in office, because it was the Sabbath Day of rest. Therefore, for that one day when the inauguration was postponed, American may have been without a President.

However, some argue that David Rice Atchison as President Pro Tempore would have automatically filled that role.

Now whether or not Atchison was ever actually President is a matter of technicality; he certainly wasn’t officially classed as one. However, I wasn’t about to risk excluding one of America’s Presidents, even if I believe that risk was rather small.

You can see me work on this image and discuss the case here if your interest in American Presidents also happens to include quite possibly fictional ones.

With Atchison restored, I now consider this Presidential project finally and officially complete. If you’re interested in seeing some of the wider behind the scenes process, I documented quite a few of my thoughts in video form.

You can find some out more about my process here:

Overall, I found this project to be a really rewarding challenge. And while I do feel that I improved my technical and creative skills—an achievement in and of itself—the real reward, for me, was what I learnt about myself.

History is a subject that I’ve always struggled with academically, despite having a keen interest in it. However, after spending hour upon hour researching Presidents for a practical purpose, I found myself retaining historical information in a way in which I had never managed to do before. Sometimes I think it’s not that you can’t learn something, but that you need to find a way that works for you.

I look forward to continuing my own historical education via projects such as this, so if anyone happens to know any other obscure possible Presidents, feel free to send them my way.


About the author: James Berridge is a photo restorer and colorist based in the United Kingdom. He studied video post-production at university, specializing in visual effects and compositing. He later used the skills he picked up in these roles to work with historical photographs. Outside of work he enjoys exploring seaside towns and trying to finally work his way through his video game backlog.

You can find more of his work on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube at JBColourisation.

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