In Tony Barnhill’s colorized images of old Hawai‘i, black-and-white photographs are reimagined in vivid color.
In 2020, Tony Barnhill began digitally adding color to his grandparents’ deteriorating black-and-white yearbook photos. His experiment evolved into obsession, and today Barnhill’s focus has shifted to colorizing snapshots of old Hawai‘i.
Barnhill has colorized portraits of Queen Liliʻuokalani on her throne, Duke Kahanamoku and Amelia Earhart sharing a pineapple, as well as scenes from a simpler Waikīkī.
In today’s overly documented society, where an endless stream of images crowds our devices, it’s easy to overlook the influence of color photography. But as Barhill’s work proves, something unexpected happens when shades of gray are infused with layers of reds, blues, and greens.
The figures captured in time suddenly appear more familiar, more like us. Duke and Amelia are no longer distant figures. Apart from old-fashioned clothing, the photos appear like they could have been taken yesterday. In these polychromed images, the pair become more akin to the faces we see in our daily lives and could easily be somebody’s uncle or friend.
Barnhill begins by combing state and national archives for photos in the public domain, which he then runs through Photoshop to achieve an initial pop of color. Technology aids the colorization process with the click of a button, but artificial intelligence is no match for the human eye. He finishes the process by manually tweaking layers of color to edge closer to reality.
“The technology isn’t trained on Pacific Islander skin, or tropical vegetation, or the color of the ocean here,” explains Barnhill, who has lived on Oʻahu for nearly two decades. “Because I live here, I can just look out my window for inspiration.”
Barnhill says accuracy within the image itself is paramount. For a photo of Queen Liliʻuokalani on her throne, he visited Bishop Museum to see her embellished burgundy gown for himself. His drives through town and frequent hiking expeditions inform his landscape colorizations. It’s not just about reviving the color—this process can reveal subtleties that are hidden away.
“There are things in photos that we cannot see in the black-and-white version, especially wrinkles in faces or clouds in the sky, really small details that make it more interesting,” Barnhill explains.
In black and white, everything can feel ancient. But Barnhill’s vivid images collapse the distance between past and present, forcing the viewer to see an old photograph with a new perspective.
“Color has a way of sparking people’s imagination,” Barnhill says, “making it seem as if the past it portrays wasn’t that long ago.”