The world isn’t black and white, so Grace Rawson gave back its glorious color, one brushstroke at a time


posted Wednesday, August 17, 2016 at 6:59 AM EST


We're suckers for a little bit of photography history around these parts, so when a video documentary short called "The Colourist" discussing the nearly-forgotten art of colorizing black-and-white film prints was shared by the folks over at PDN Pulse yesterday, we couldn't resist watching it ourselves. We're glad we did, because it turned out to be both informative and evocative.

Color is all around us in our world, and we take for granted the ability of our cameras and phones to capture its many hues in all their glory. It wasn't always so, though. For many years, the complexities and cost of color imaging kept them out of the hands of most photographers. Where you did see color photos, often these weren't actually color images, but rather black-and-white shots that had been laboriously recolored by hand.

One-time professional colorist Grace Rawson used to do just that in 1950s New Zealand, using her artistic talents to return a splash of color to the photographs created by photographer and aviator Leo Lemuel White. Having worked as a news photographer since the 1920s and then learning to fly in the 1930s, and subsequently combining his two passions in the decades before World War II, it's not surprising that White was chosen to serve as a photographer for the Royal New Zealand Air Force during the war.

'The Colourist', a documentary short courtesy of Loading Docs / TVNZ.

Once life returned to normalcy at war's end, he founded Whites Aviation, and during the 1950s rose to prominence with a black-and-white photo series documenting the beauty of New Zealand from the air. By all accounts, these shots proved very popular indeed. Not only was there a 311-page book of White's creations, but they were also proudly displayed in many a Kiwi household -- after a little color had been returned to add some visual appeal, that is.

But there was something that made these photos even more special: They weren't mere prints. Instead, every one of these photographs was colored by hand, and Grace Rawson was one of a team of colorists doing just that for Whites Aviation. In the video short above, Rawson gives us an insight into her work for the company, and why she decided upon a career as a colorist in the first place.

But perhaps even cooler than all of that is the fact that we get to see her adding color to black-and-white prints in the clip, using the very same skills she learned and honed to perfection all of those decades ago. Not only does that reveal a little of how the work of adding color to black-and-white photos was accomplished, but it also gives us a window into a simpler time, and lets us see a dying art before it is lost to the world forever.

Having seen the clip, we feel a little richer and more complete as photographers for having gotten the chance to peek through this window into the past. Once you've seen how much effort was once required to bring a color photo to life, it's harder to take for granted just how fortunate we are as photographers today.

(via PDN Pulse)