France’s Past in Color

Whenever he isn’t busy editing images from a photoshoot for Dior or Givenchy, Sébastien de Oliveira travels back through time. This seasoned colorist breathes fresh energy into old, black-and-white photos, closing the gap between us and the Belle Epoque, World War I, and 1940s America.
A cafe terrace in Paris, 1925. © Maurice-Louis Branger/Roger-Viollet, colorization by Sébastien de Oliveira

Upon discovering his work on Instagram, Sébastien de Oliveira’s followers almost always have the same reaction. Scenes featuring a group of French soldiers preparing to leave for the front in 1914, a young family from Oklahoma forced onto the road by the drought and the Great Depression, and a young woman hailing a cab in Manhattan in 1956, all seem astonishingly modern!

“We’re not used to seeing photos in black and white anymore,” says the Parisian colorist. What’s more, color removes the documentary aspect from images, making them closer and more familiar. This explains the current craze for coloring archive images. Peter Jackson himself experimented with it, as seen in the highly acclaimed They Shall Not Grow Old, a movie about the daily lives of British soldiers in the trenches. The same trend can be seen in WWII in Color: Road to Victory, a docuseries recently made available on Netflix, featuring an episode on the Dunkirk evacuation and another on the liberation of Paris.

Sébastien de Oliveira, 51, started coloring images several years ago. “Between two jobs” in fashion, he taught himself using a photograph of the Place de l’Opéra in Paris taken in 1889. His profession editing images had made him a Photoshop expert: “I cut out handbags, smooth folds in clothing, and clean up the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. I know what I’m doing!” For the rest, he called on his training in image and color at the Institut d’Arts Visuels in Orléans.

The Place de l’Opéra in Paris, 1889. © Studio Léon & Levy/Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Colorization by Sébastien de Oliveira

While the uneducated eye may see a simple green sweater, as in this 1945 portrait of Lauren Bacall, the specialist sees an array of colors. “The dark areas of the clothing slip into blue while the lit areas tend towards the yellow. Within the color of a single element, there are actually multiple nuances, which I reproduce. That’s what underpins the quality of my work, and what has helped me carve out a niche in the small world of colorization.” His images were showcased in an exhibition in Dunkirk in 2019, and twenty others were featured in the coffee-table book Extraordinary Voyages, published by Louis Vuitton last May.

Restoring the Intensity of Color

Something else sets Sébastien de Oliveira’s work apart. While some colorists prefer a downplayed treatment of colors, lending photographs a washed-out appearance, the French artist “turns up the dials.” The resulting images are radiant and flooded with colorful pixels. This is particularly eye-catching in his images of America during the 1940s and 1950s – his favorite era – including a sailor’s blue uniform, a bus driver’s multicolored scarf, a yellow trolley, a red biplane, and a Coca- Cola advertisement on a wall.

“My objective is to take a black-and-white photo and make it into an image that could have been taken with the tools of the day, using Technicolor or Ektachrome reels which were developed in the early 1940s.” For older photos, he imitates a French invention, the autochrome color photography process created by the Lumière brothers in 1903. “They’re beautiful, they look like Impressionist paintings! We often think that images from the 1910s would have dull colors, but it’s quite the opposite!”

To help with his work, the colorist has amassed a stock of vintage color photos and uses them as references when deciding which shade to give a certain uniform, flag, or movie poster. Red corresponds to a 70% grayscale, offering Sébastien de Oliveira his only clue, but all other colors are subject to interpretation. “I try to remain credible, but I am an artist, not a historian. I corrected the color on Lindbergh’s seaplane after carrying out further research, but we will never know for sure the color of an umbrella or a pair of pants. I am simply trying to take people on a stroll through the past.”

May Day in Paris, 1912. © Agence Rol/Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Colorization by Sébastien de Oliveira
A group of French soldiers on leave outside the Gare de l’Est train station in Paris, 1916. © Agence Rol/Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Colorization by Sébastien de Oliveira
American Red Cross volunteers hand out sandwiches to Algerian infantrymen near Paris, 1918. © National Archives and Records Administration
Colorization by Sébastien de Oliveira
An American soldier offers chocolate to two French girls in Normandy, July 1944. © U.S. Army Signal Corps/Library of Congress
Colorization by Sébastien de Oliveira
Divers on the Iéna bridge in Paris, 1945. © Robert Doisneau/Getty Images
Colorization by Sébastien de Oliveira
Children at play in the Ménilmontant neighborhood of Paris, 1956. © Robert Doisneau/Getty Images
Colorization by Sébastien de Oliveira

Portfolio published in the February 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.