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#OverACupOfTealeaves: Dana Keller of History in Color: Palette as A Bridge to the Past

Mar.29.2016
This past winter, we said cheers to the new TEALEAVES x Pantone packaging design of our iconic Whole Leaf Pyramid Teabag collection with #PaletteForYourPalate. An online exhibition of tea+color+mood, we explore the detail of color through a culinary approach as well as a documentary on why color matters— at TEALEAVES, we not only blend for aroma and taste, but also for color.
Understanding that “the first taste is with the eyes”, we filmed and learned from influencers, thought-leaders, movers and shakers of industry to see how they apply color in their respective domains. With this same philosophy and curious spirit, we believe that the best “condiment” to any cup of Tealeaves is wisdom to share and a great story to tell. Sip, reflect, enjoy.

Coloring only for children? Not so fast. Colorizer Dana Keller, Reddit-famous and respected in his field, would disagree. Known on subreddit r/ColorizedHistory as the moderator “klassixx”, and across the web as History in Color, Dana Keller breathes new life into black and white photographs of days past. With works featured on BBC and History Channel, he creates a new familiarity with stars and icons, from Audrey Hepburn in her kitchen to Louis Armstrong mid-practice session.

Read on to understand how Dana Keller applies color to shorten the distance between past and present— after all, history isn’t monochrome.

Photo Credit: Dana Keller

Over a Cup of Tealeaves with Dana Keller
Photography Colorizer of History in Color

· HISTORY IN COLOR ON COLORIZING PHOTOGRAPHY ·

Tealeaves: Can you please explain to us what you do?

Dana Keller: I colorize black and white photographs for many types of projects, including historical documentaries, archival collections, and multimedia.

Tealeaves: What led you into the world of colorizing photography? How long has this been your profession?

Dana Keller: I have been colorizing photographs for a little over two years. My interest in it began when I had seen a collection of colorized photos online that was receiving a lot of attention for being very realistic. To me, these images, while indeed very carefully and thoughtfully colorized, did not really look true-to-life, but rather more like paintings. They no longer resembled photographs. I had seen many colorizations before, and they have always looked very stylized, or at least it was unmistakable that they had been colorized, as opposed to resembling an actual color photograph. Having a background in art and several years experience with photography, I began to colorize photos myself and attempted to concentrate more on the subtleties of realistic colors and shading, with the goal of eliminating as much as possible the viewer’s awareness of the fact that the photo was colorized, and to enable the viewer to see it from a new perspective, as if it were actually a color photograph.

Tealeaves: Reddit’s sub-reddit, r/colorizedhistory, has gained popularity in more mainstream online media. Approximately much of the work on reddit’s thread is yours?

Dana Keller: R/colorizedhistory is a great site with some talented artists specializing in colorizing photographs, and it’s growing in its collection and contributors. I used to be quite active on the site a couple of years ago when its contributors were few, at which point my work was probably close to a third of the content. I haven’t been active for a while, and I would estimate that 10% or less of the work is mine at this point.

Tealeaves: Why do you think colorized old photos are so popular on the internet right now?

Dana Keller: I think a big part of their popularity now is that there have been some talented artists that have taken colorization to the next level of realism. Typically one might think of a “colorized photo” as being kind of garish and tasteless, with broad one-color strokes with no regard to detail or any attempt at subtlety or nuance. All the attention is usually on the colorization, rather than the photo itself. But a newer generation of colorizers have begun to approach colorizing with a real reverence towards history, using their skills to eliminate the distraction of the “colorization”, ultimately bringing these scenes to life with a natural realism that hopefully connects the viewer to the past in a new way. Equally as important, there is a great effort in preserving historical authenticity as well, with a lot of painstaking research in order to provide as accurate a depiction as possible.

Tealeaves: With this popularity of colorized old photos, do you think people take color for granted?

Dana Keller: I think we do take color for granted. Though it’s impossible to say for sure, I also think that photographers of long ago would have preferred to use color photography if it had been available. There’s a fundamental familiarity that we have through color images, simply because they are a more accurate representation of the real world. When color is absent in a photograph, we are consequently looking at a filtered image, and we can’t really grasp the reality of the image in the same way as if it had the dimensions of color. That is not to say that there is anything missing aesthetically in a black and white image; on the contrary, some of the most stunning photographs are in black and white, and color may actually detract from the gravitas present in such photos. But in the very basic sense of accurately portraying the world we live in, color is essential to that relationship.

Tealeaves: Can you list some publications that your work has been featured in? How did this make you feel?

Dana Keller: My work has been featured in several publications and productions, with clients such as History Channel, Major League Baseball, and BBC. I have also been able to work with several agencies from all over the world, assisting with exclusive projects for their archives and historical publications. It is a great joy to be a part of so many unique projects, and it truly is a different experience every time.

Tealeaves: Are there particular colorized photos of yours that seem most popular? Which are those, and why do you think this is? What types of mediums do consumers use these photos for?

Dana Keller: I think the two most popular are Audrey Hepburn, and the photo of the girls delivering ice. Audrey Hepburn’s popularity is probably self explanatory, but I would never have expected the ice girls to have become one of the leading favorites online. Images like these that are not necessarily exclusive to client work tend to be most popular as prints and posters.

Tealeaves: Have you experienced any disputes regarding image copyright?

Dana Keller: Copyright is always a concern and I do try and keep to the public domain, almost entirely to avoid any potential copyright disputes. I do my best to research the copyright holders, and I won’t sell any prints of copyrighted works (without permission of course).

Photo Credit: Dana Keller

· HISTORY IN COLOR ON DESIGN PROCESS ·

Tealeaves: How do you get inspirations for what you decide to colorize? What’s your favorite place to find photos to colorize?

Dana Keller: Most of the photos I colorize are projects for clients, but when I colorize on my own, I usually choose ones that make me wonder what these pieces of history would have looked like in real life. Often times the most interesting are the ones that are slice-of-life images depicting often long forgotten aspects of everyday life. I will mostly find images that are in the public domain, which can be found from several sources like Wikipedia or the Library of Congress.

Tealeaves: What are necessary tools for colorization that you use? What is the average length of time it takes to complete one colorization?

Dana Keller: Most of my work is done through Photoshop, and I use a Wacom tablet. Each photo is unique in its complexity and detail, so the range of time spent on a colorization varies greatly. A “typical” portrait without a lot of elaborate detail (or marks/scratches to be cleaned up) can take a few hours. Scenes with a lot more elements can take several days or a week to complete.

Tealeaves: What is your process of colorizing a photograph?

Dana Keller: All of the colorizing is done digitally, but still technically by hand. I use Photoshop and a Wacom tablet to “paint” in the colors on multiple layers so that they blend together to hopefully create a realistic blend of color.

Tealeaves: What colors do you tend to lean more towards in your work? Are there certain time periods in history where you discovered certain colors were more prominent? Have you spotted any color trends through delving into the past?

Dana Keller: The colors uses of course greatly depend on the subject. Time periods, culture, and context are all variables to be considered. Researching all of these is a project in itself. It’s impossible to say what colors would be considered trending, but one thing that is for certain, is that vibrant colors were present at all points of history, and it is easy to forget that when viewing black and white images.

Tealeaves: Why is being deliberate with respect to color selection so important for what you do? What lengths do you undergo to ensure that you select the right colors?

Dana Keller: Since colorizing is done out of a respect for history, it is essential to be as accurate as possible with color selection, which is in fact one of the most challenging aspects to colorizing. No color information is available in the grey values, so in order to preserve as much authenticity as possible, researching colors is a must. But since it’s of course impossible to research everything, that can only take you so far. It then comes down to some educated guessing. Grey values hint at what the possible colors could be; mix that in with some context clues and historical knowledge, and you can then start to build a realistic portrayal of what the scene could have looked like to the photographer at that moment. The key word there is could. There will always be a significant margin for inaccuracy and some “artistic license”.

Tealeaves: Have you ever tested your accuracy in colorizing by having someone send you a black and white photograph that was originally photographed in color? If yes, what was the experience like?

Dana Keller: I haven’t had someone else test me, though I have tested myself in this way. Often they are fairly close, but sometimes there are certainly significant differences between the colors I choose and the “real” colors. While great efforts are made to preserve authenticity, colorization is of course not an exact science. As mentioned above, there are many variables involved, and there will always a wide margin for artistic license, especially for things that simply cannot be researched.

Tealeaves: Would you consider what you do as an art, science, or mixture of both?

Dana Keller: It is certainly a mixture of both. There is a lot of hard research involved, as well as many complex technical aspects that guide colorization. But because these images by nature do not contain the information necessary to guarantee an accurate conversion of grey values into color, art is what fills in the gaps.

Photo Credit: Dana Keller

· HISTORY IN COLOR ON COLORIZED PHOTOGRAPHY AND EMOTION ·

Tealeaves: What are ways in which you think modernly colorized old photos influence our perception of history?

Dana Keller: I think it can be a very powerful tool. If done well, the addition of color can help “connect” people to history. It can bridge the gap from a seemingly distant event and make it more immediate and relevant. We may not know exactly what colors the subject of an images should be, but when we do build on the existing knowledge of colors in the image we begin to create a more accurate representation of history.

Tealeaves: Do you think color or lack thereof can evoke a mood or emotion in the realm of photography?

Dana Keller: It’s well known that the use of color (and lack of color) is strongly influential in how we respond to the world. Certain colors can evoke excitement and pleasure, while others can bring about sorrow and somberness. Combinations of colors can create complex symphonies of emotions, and what’s amazing is that the very lack of color can do the same, with concentration on contrast and shape. What we perceive in these photos and how we receive them is greatly dependent on how color is used (or not used), and what is revealed (or hidden) with the use of either technique.

Tealeaves: Has there been any instance where you have seen colorizing a photograph lend itself to good/positivity in the world or increased empathy?

Dana Keller: In my experience, the overall response to colorization has been very positive. The majority of people tend to see the photographs in a new way when they are colorized, and they express that it does indeed help them to appreciate the events and figures of the past as more relevant. As an example, I had colorized a photo of women and children arriving in Auschwitz, taken probably hours before their deaths. The feedback was overwhelming, in that so many people expressed that the image had made the Holocaust events feel so much more real to them, as these figures of that tragedy became more familiar as real living people.

Tealeaves: Why do you think colorizing photography is so important?

Dana Keller: Art and design already play an important role through the curation of archival collections with how materials are represented and how they engage the public. In the archives, colorization can be considered another facet of that presentation. As mentioned above, colorization can help “connect” people to history; it can bridge the gap from a distant event and make it feel as immediate and relevant as it was when the photo was taken. This effectiveness can be used to engage different communities and generate interest. For example, a historical society, which was in the process of converting an old train station into a museum, commissioned me to colorize a photo of the building. They felt that the colorized image would allow greater opportunity for people to connect and feel the relevance of this historic place in their community, and would thus help generate funding for the project. Of course, being a historical society, they wanted to be as accurate as possible in the coloring process. In order to achieve this, they were able to take color samples from the base layer of paint on the building, which had been painted over many times through the years. By providing the data for the colors, we were able to color the image with a great deal more accuracy. So in practice, if we can build up the image with as much existing knowledge of colors as possible, often times using the archives own resources, we can then perhaps begin to create, theoretically, a more accurate—albeit of course artificial—representation of history. This can be a strong publicity tool, used to help tell the story of the images, giving people a unique and different way to connect to photographic collections.

· HISTORY IN COLOR ON SEEING COLOR ·

Tealeaves: What is your personal definition of color?

Dana Keller: Seeing color is seeing one of the many complex ways that light interacts with the world. Even though an object can be considered to be one color, such as a red shirt or a green leaf, in reality, nothing is just one solid color. Aside from all of the textures and matter making up these objects, the atmosphere of lighting will play tricks on you as well. Depending on the color temperature, (e.g. time of day, or sunlight vs. incandescent light), something that you understand as “red” may actually be reaching your eyes as a blue or purple. Color is a dynamic dimension that alters, complicates, and enhances our perspective of the world.

Tealeaves: What is the one key message you would want readers to take away regarding your work and the relationship between mood and color?

Dana Keller: With black and white photos, people tend to feel distant and disconnected from the real and vibrant world those photos are actually portraying. And why shouldn’t they? The world was never in black and white, and it’s not something we are used to seeing in day to day reality. By adding color to these photos, it makes them seem that much more familiar. The viewer is brought a little closer to the reality in which they were taken. The reason these colorizations exist is to give the viewer an opportunity to see an image from history with a different perspective, a chance to connect to an increasingly distant, but still very real past, with real people who lived real lives. This reveals the power of color and how it is so influential to our emotions and moods.

Tealeaves: What is your favorite color and why?

Dana Keller: Ironically, I really like very dark greys (around 85%). I don’t really know why. But one of my favorite actual colors is a dark rich red, like a redder mahogany or cherry wood. Those colors feel heavy and smooth and warm.

Tealeaves: Which color would you hate to lose sight of the most? Why?

Dana Keller: Probably bright reds and oranges, as are found in the desert sunsets of the Southwest. The colors of a sunset after a thunderstorm can overtake the entire atmosphere for a few brief minutes, and it’s one of the most beautiful sights.

Tealeaves: What color do you dislike the most and why?

Dana Keller: Fuschia / Magenta colors are really overwhelming for me, and they are the colors that I think are very difficult to use in a tasteful way.

Tealeaves: Are you familiar with #TheDress? What colors did you initially see? Do you have a funny anecdote surrounding it?

Dana Keller: I am definitely familiar with The Dress. Initially I saw it as white and gold, but once I saw it as blue and black, I have been unable to see it as white and gold again. Having a job that is literally dependent on color, my white/gold friends thought I was crazy that I was unable to see it “correctly”, and I think I’ve lost a lot of credibility with them (jokingly of course).

· HISTORY IN COLOR ON TEA & TEALEAVES ·

Tealeaves: As we are a tea company, what is your favourite kind of tea that you enjoy drinking?

Dana Keller: I like rooibos tea, especially with vanilla. I like the dark smoky but sweet smell and the rich warm color.

Tealeaves: We have to ask, do you have a favourite Tealeaves tea?

Dana Keller: Besides the Vanilla Rooibos, I really like the Energy blend, with the mint and fruity flavor.

Tealeaves: Thank you so much for your time! Lastly,what is your fondest memory of tea?

Dana Keller: I always like having a hot pot of tea and cookies in the winter with friends.

Why color? Stay tuned for Tealeaves documentary, Color In Sight.

· SYNOPSIS ·

We blend teas specifically for color, alongside aroma and taste, with understanding that “the first bite is with the eyes”. Fascinated by color’s potential to excite and delight, TEALEAVES reached out to experts in design to see how they thought about—and used—color. From Nike and OPI to Herman Miller and PANTONE, these experts volunteered their time for this exciting project. Our goal, together, was to bring about appreciation for the little detail of color selection and how it can have a big impact on the products and services enjoyed by many. Coming Soon.

Explore the Documentary on the #PaletteForYourPalate exhibit of tea + color + mood

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