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‘That could be now. That could be me’: Artist brings vivid colour to old Melbourne

The original was from a Melbourne photographer named Mark Daniel. The modern retelling is the work of Benjamin Thomas, who for six years has imbued black and white photographs with vivid and intricate colour from his Preston home.

Much of his work is based on military and war-time photography. He has coloured the late prime minister Bob Hawke from the early 1950s, bushmen breaking for lunch at the turn of the 20th century and was the first to begin reproducing scenes of old Melbourne streets and people.

“As much as I like black and white photos, they create distance to us from our modern perspective,” Mr Thomas said.

“With the introduction of colour, that all just slips away.

“There’s an empathy that develops. That could be now. That could be me. Their life stories just become so real.”

He doesn’t sell the prints, only posts them for the wonder of his near-25,000 followers on his Facebook page Colours of Yesterday.

Using a tablet, stylus and Photoshop, Mr Thomas, whose day job is as an art and print curator with the University of Melbourne, begins by touching up the black and white tones and then sets down the first layer of colour.

Building a sky may begin with a dark blue and be layered with lighter blues, white, creams and greys to capture clouds and the radiance of the sun.

In complex scenes involving multiple human figures and buildings – and these can take more than 20 hours – he may finish with more than 100 layers of colour.

Curator Benjamin Thomas brings old black and white photos to life, including Melbourne streetscapes and people, by adding intricate and vivid colour.

Curator Benjamin Thomas brings old black and white photos to life, including Melbourne streetscapes and people, by adding intricate and vivid colour.Credit:Justin McManus

Choosing the right one is simple enough for roads and sky, but buildings and people can be more complicated. If the structures are still standing, Mr Thomas might visit them in person or view them on Google Maps.

Some colour choices are an educated guess based on their known characteristics in black and white photos. Red clothes, for example, often present very dark, he said.

“You’ll never be able to say definitively that this black and white shade should be this particular colour, but you also get a very good sense of what would be an authentic palette for that era,” he said.

Sometimes descendants of one of Mr Thomas’s subjects will stumble upon his work. This happened for the grateful family of Harold Lanyon, the boy on the rocking horse, and in 2018 Mr Thomas tracked down Aunty Lorraine Wilson and presented her a coloured image of her Ngarrindjeri father, Roland Carter, a WWI digger and prisoner of war.

Private Roland Carter, photographed by Otto Stiehl at Wünsdorf-Zossen, Germany, 1918.

Private Roland Carter, photographed by Otto Stiehl at Wünsdorf-Zossen, Germany, 1918.

“Suddenly for them there’s a really close personal connection, which has been really heart-warming from my end.”

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