Historical Icons in Living Color

Photo of Ulysses Grant, colorized by Mads Madsen
A photo of Ulysses Grant colorized by Mads Madsen

The spring issue of the Civil War Trust’s Hallowed Ground magazine had photos of Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee that I’d seen before, but this time I did a doubletake. The photos were in color.

I was baffled for a moment. There was no color photography during the Civil War. Where had the photos come from, and why had I never seen them before?

I was delighted by the richness and depth. The men looked real—dare I say alive?—in a way they never had before.

According to the credit line, the Library of Congress images had been colorized by Mads Madsen of Colorized History in Denmark. And they were masterfully done.

By an odd coincidence, right around that time, a friend sent me a link to a series of colorized historical photos. They cover a range of time periods and subjects, and they are fascinating.

A photo of Butch Cassidy colorized by Mads Madsen
A photo of Butch Cassidy colorized by Mads Madsen

We often have complex emotional reactions to photographs. But when we look at faded black-and-white images, they can seem stale and as though the people in them were not quite real. Similarly, when we visit historical sites and see the furnishings worn and dulled by age, it’s easy to forget that they were once vibrant and new.

Of course, many amateur and professional photographers take stunning photos in black and white (Ansel Adams leaps to mind), and I wouldn’t want to change that. But a generation of people have now grown up with color photography at their fingertips and though purists might disagree, I say a colorized photograph, done right, can breathe life into a historical image—and make history even more accessible to a whole new generation of history buffs.

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