Infusing color into the era of black and white
Long before digital cameras and photo-retouching software, Wu Mingzhu was turning black-and-white snapshots into color photos that almost looked like oil paintings.
Wu, now 70, traces that vocation back to 1963, when she had her graduation photo taken at the Baile Studio on Huaihai Road in downtown Shanghai.
“At the time, young girls like me were obsessed with the photos of movie stars in the shop windows,” she recalls. “I was so excited to sit in front of a professional, old-fashioned camera for the first time to have my picture taken. I felt like I were a star.”
Wu applied to do a photography major at Shanghai Commercial College. Her three-year study included taking photos, coloring them, processing film in a darkroom and repairing negatives.
Upon graduation, she chose coloring films as her specialty and began a 30-year career.
The coloring techniques required a very skilled hand. It wasn’t just a matter of applying color. A colorist had to understand basic artistic techniques so that skin looked like skin, a cashmere sweater looked woolly and jewelry sparkled.
Her work even touched on her old obsession with celebrities. She was called on to color the professional photos of stars like comedian Yan Shunkai, actress Gong Xue and Kunqu Opera artist Yu Zhenfei.
She also colored the photos of political leaders. During the late 1960s, she was part of a team of 20 professionals who worked for more than a year selecting, enlarging and coloring photos for a photographic exhibition of Chairman Mao at the then Sino-Soviet Friendship Building (now Shanghai Exhibition Center).
Many of the photos were huge, as high as two stories. Wu says she had to go up and downstairs dozens of times every day.
“I worked with Shanghai’s best colorists, who taught me a lot,” Wu recalls.
Three or four decades ago, having a family photo colored was beyond the reach of most people. “To color a 30cm-by-20cm photo cost the equivalent of almost one-fourth of a month’s income,” she says.
Most families managed to scrape together the money for photos of landmark events, like weddings, special birthdays, family reunions and graduations.
After the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), it became very fashionable to have wedding photos colored. The practice reached its heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“The bride needed to look young and radiant, so I usually used light floors and pink tones,” Wu says.
However, if she were coloring a photo involving farmers, she had to use darker tones.
“I had to make the photos match the social status of the people pictured,” she says.
Different Shanghai photo studios had their own style of coloring. Some tended to emphasize bold, strong colors, while others produced photos of restraint and elegance.
“Some masters were highly skilled,” Wu says. “I knew one colorist who could even add normal eyes to the photo of a blind person.”
It took a lot of thought and preparation before starting work on a photo. Wu says she often spent an hour just looking at the black-and-white photo to get a sense of the subject. Then she gathered together all the equipment she needed, including cotton swabs for large areas and Chinese weasel-hair brushes for small details. Sometimes she even used her fingers to get the right touch of color.
“The work required technique and patience,” Wu says. “Any distraction could destroy that.”
Clients often let Wu choose the coloring for clothing and backgrounds. Sometimes they asked her to make their eyes bigger, their lips redder or their hair more shiny. It was, in a sense, the human precursor of the photo-processing software used today to make people look more beautiful than they really are.
Wu says she generally started with the lips, then moved on to setting and clothes before returning to the face and eyes. She used a layer of watercolor as the base, with oil pigments for the top layer.
“The watercolors helped fix the oil firmly,” she says.
Different fabrics required different techniques. Wool sweaters needed to be fluffy, while silk had to be smooth and glistening.
Photo coloring began to wane in the early 1980s, when chromatic film entered the China market. By the late 1980s, the technique was largely gone.
After her retirement in 1997, Wu was invited to give lectures for photographers on old photo-coloring techniques. She also helped repair old photos.
At home, she keeps a pile of old colored photos. Leafing through them now and then brings back memories of a golden era for her.
“Times change and there is nothing you can do about it,” Wu says.
“I’ll keep those old photos because they were all about important moments in the lives of people.”