I recently learned how to colorize black-and-white photographs with a course on Lynda.com (thanks for the opportunity, NY 3Rs Association!).  Naturally, I put these new-found skills to use on some of the wonderful old photographs accessible on New York Heritage.

Choosing a collection to pluck photos from was difficult; there are so many and they all have gems!  After falling down the rabbit hole of browsing collections, I decided on the George W. Fenner World War I Photographs of Syracuse, NY, a collection from the Onondaga County Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Department.

Fenner was a staff photographer for the local paper in Syracuse and these professional-quality photos of his show how Central New York responded to the Great War.

These men are both clergymen: Pastor Frederick W. Betts and Rev. George S. Mahon. Betts was born in Illinois but came to New York to study at St. Lawrence University from 1884 to 1885. He moved to Syracuse to become the minister of the First Church, a position he held until his death in 1932. (Incidentally, he served as president on the Board of Syracuse Public Library, so we are particularly grateful for his civic contributions). Mahon was the founding Roman Catholic priest of the Church of the Holy Rosary in 1913 on the west side of Syracuse and served his parish until his death in 1930.

But what might they have looked like in color?! These proud Syracuse citizens became my dignified colorization guinea pigs.


Can you tell what the tricks of colorizing are?   Step one was to increase the dynamic range, making whites whiter and blacks blacker.  Step two was to clean up the scratches and dust that are inherent with scanned images of 100 year old photos.  Step three, the most intensive and time consuming, is to treat your cleaned up image in Photoshop like a coloring book from  your childhood.  Using pens, brushes, and layers, you can colorize areas and then fiddle with the result using hue & saturation levels.

Admittedly, my final products are not of expert quality, but they were fun to make and, I hope, pose as a reminder that these black and white photographs were of real, living people in the not-so-very-distant past.


This woman was photographed by Fenner during the 1917 Fourth of July Parade in Syracuse.  Each star on her flag represents a son; she had five boys in service during World War I.   This photograph appeared on page 3 of the Syracuse Herald on Monday Evening, November 26, 1917.

Proud as I may be of my new coloring skills, I still have a while to go before I can do in Photoshop what some people did so well by hand:

Mrs. Packard, a matriarch of the wealthy Packard family of Lakewood, NY, was brought to colorful life the old fashioned way, with colored pencils and time.

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NewYorkHeritage.org is a research portal for students, educators, historians, genealogists, and others who are interested in learning more about the people, places and institutions of historical New York State. The site provides immediate free access to more than 160 distinct digital collections that reflect New York State's long history.