A wedding photographer and computer specialist by profession, Mariusz Zając has become one of Poland’s best-known colorizers of historical pictures. Specializing in the inter-bellum period, his stunning images of pre-war Warsaw have won him admirers around the world…
Warsaw Insider: What do you enjoy about colorizing this particular era?
Mariusz Zając: The earliest color photos of Warsaw that are known to exist were only taken during the Warsaw Uprising, so whilst we have a huge amount of beautiful pictures shot before, none of these were taken in color – at least, not the ones that survived.
Your work has proved tremendously popular…
I think in part that’s because I choose to color my photos differently. Until now, most coloring attempts were made by graphic artists using manual methods. Unlike them, I try to limit my manual involvement as much as possible. I modify images in a way that makes the graphics program do as much work as it can. This approach means that I’m able to achieve a greater level of realism and detail.
Have you been surprised by the reaction to your work?
In most cases it’s positive, especially if you use ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ as a benchmark. Of course, there are negative comments, but these are few and far between and mainly from people who believe that historical photos shouldn’t be colored.
Do they have a point?
They claim that images lose their ‘atmosphere’ when colored. I answer them by saying that my colorizations do not mean that the originals have been removed from the public sphere. Some think that my artistic vision isn’t in accordance with historical truth, but I think I’m providing a service by giving viewers a choice.
You color both films and photos – how does your process differ when it comes to these two fields?
A photo is composed of one frame whereas a film has thousands of frames that each need to be colored separately. When coloring a photo I can spend several hours working on just one, so these are definitely more refined than film.
You’ve won a huge following, but it turns out you haven’t even been coloring for long?
That’s right. I made coloring debut in February 2020. My first photos and film though received great feedback and it was then that I realized there wasn’t much competition. That’s partly why I decided to throw myself into coloring and expand my knowledge.
How accurate are you colors?
Like all colorizations, they’re part of the artistic vision of the creator. Even now, there’s no way to work out what the actual color was in a monochromatic photograph.
So, now for the nerd talk – how do you color these images in the first place?
First of all I use a program called deOldify – but that relies on neutral network algorithms which means that every photo processed in this way will tend to look the same no matter what it actually shows. In order to improve my colorization results I therefore then use my own techniques to give a different color expression.
These tools are based on AI algorithms that I’ve created using my computer know-how. The coloring process isn’t actually all that different, but because I’ve found my own methods my images look different to the others on the market. It’s great to hear that viewers often can’t tell if the colors are original or not.
What do you look for when choosing which photos to color?
The coloring process has several stages and a lot depends on the quality of the initial photo. The photographs I color must have a certain minimum scan and image quality and I asses these individually based on past experience. If a photo falls below these quality specifications I have to leave it as I know the results won’t be realistic. There’s a lot of very interesting archival images that I would love to color but simply can’t because they’re not of sufficient quality.
Assuming an image is of good resolution and quality, what happens next? How time consuming is this?
Coloring one photo can take anything between thirty minutes to three or four-hours. AI algorithms aren’t good at colorizing crowds, for instance, so these demand extra work. It’s also important to spend time finding color references for essential elements. For example, one time I colored Marshal Piłsudski and got the shade of his sash wrong – straight away people were writing in to tell me that these ceremonial sashes had different colors.
How is the world of colorists changing?
The development of AI algorithms over the last couple of years have been incredible. What was impossible not long back has already become possible and this progress has completely redefined many basic concepts that apply to photography and graphics. For example, when you used to digitally enlarge a photo it would deteriorate in quality, but now it will no longer lose significant quality.
Ever since premiering, your work has gone viral…
My first forays into photo and film colorization were widely publicized in the media and ever since then I’ve had some really interesting opportunities. Looking ahead, I’m really excited that I’ve got a multimedia exhibition of my work coming up in the Norblin factory complex.
Tell us more!
I’ve met many interesting people thanks to my work, and one of those is Joanna Kowalkowska of the Art Box Experience in Norblin. She contacted me about holding an exhibition and I simply assumed it would be the kind of classic exhibition that doesn’t interest people much anymore: pictures hanging on a wall. To be honest, that didn’t arouse much enthusiasm on my part, but then she started telling me more about it and I realized it had nothing in line with our traditional perception of an exhibition.
The project will use my colorized photos and films and, thanks to state-of-the-art laser digital projections, will calibrate them to create a seamless exhibition of 800 sq/m. Essentially, my works will be brought to life in a way that I hope will make it the most captivating multimedia exhibition that Warsaw has seen to date.
For sure, lots of people would love to experiment with coloring themselves – what advice would you give to a novice?
There’s lots of quick-fix online tools but although many are quite reliable you do sometimes find errors in the interpretation of an image. For instance, you might find a program coloring trees green when, in fact, they should be a different color as the photo was taken in autumn. To correct these kind of things you have no choice but to befriend Photoshop.
Simultaneously, I’d tell beginners to acquaint themselves with the theory of color in painting – that’s important so that you learn how to choose colors consciously rather than by accident. Lastly, I’d recommend that people familiarize themselves with color correction and color grading.
For more, see: zajacfoto.com
The Art Box Experience
Set to open on March 19th, the Art Box Experience is being hyped as an immersive exhibition and event center that will allow visitors to travel back in time inside the Norblin Factory. Titled Retro Warsaw, the first exhibition will be based upon digitally reconstructed archival materials that will take people back to Warsaw’s inter-bellum: thanks to a pioneering 360 projection system, visitors will find themselves drawn inside the unique atmosphere of the era.
Breathing new life into this distant past, the authors of the project have revived a lost world with their project giving people the opportunity to march alongside a military parade, view a car race or watch in awe as a skyscraper is constructed. But, so they say, prepare also to meet the city’s everyday residents. “On the streets, at the bust stop, in the shops or inside the old Norblin factory.” Promising to be like nothing Warsaw has ever seen before, tickets and further info can be found at: artboxexperience.com