Vintage Photos of Polar Exploration — In Living Color

It’s easy for many historical purists to dismiss the emerging trend of colorizing old photos and videos.

Isn’t the point of old photos to look back on a time before the advance of technology? To understand it through the literal lenses of that era?

The answer is yes, of course. But at the same time, colorizing vintage photography can attract an audience that doesn’t always resonate with “boring” black-and-white historical images.

For Ross Day, it’s a silly choice: Why not present both versions?

That’s what this self-described historian of polar adventures is doing with the mountain of archived images from the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration. Through various platforms, including Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, Day displays his work colorizing images from the iconic expeditions of Roald Amundsen, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and many others.

There’s something undeniably powerful about the photos, which Day produces after a lot of research and painstaking work in Photoshop, according to Fstoppers, a website devoted to photography.

Most importantly, Day always presents the colorized photos alongside the original versions, allowing viewers to experience both versions — no preference required.

On YouTube, he presents his editing process for those interested in his work and level of accuracy, as in the video below.

A complex process

According to the story on Fstoppers, Day grew up close to the Scott Polar Research Institute near Cambridge. That led him to an early fascination with polar history, especially the mystery of John Franklin’s failed 1845 expedition.

Then the pandemic hit, and Day lost his job. With plenty of free time on his hands, he began researching and colorizing images from his family tree. Soon, Day found himself colorizing images from his favorite subject of polar history.

The process begins by finding a high-resolution photo and converting it to a true black-and-white image.

As for actually colorizing the photo, Day is committed to historical accuracy, Fstoppers wrote, and conducts intensive research before adding color.

“He is committed to not blindly guessing at colors,” Mark Dunsmuir wrote in the article. “He methodically researches contemporary equipment and flags that are on display at museums around the world. So, when Day colorizes a strap on Shackleton’s overalls a brown tan, it’s because he’s found examples of the Boss’s clothing to work from.”

Lovers of polar history will recognize that many of Day’s colorizations include the now-famous photographs Frank Hurley made during Ernest Shackleton’s expedition. While certainly gorgeous in black-and-white, Day’s work breathes new life into the images. In some cases, it elevates the visceral sense of peril that those men must have felt.

And each colorized photo, unlike many social media accounts, comes with a short history lesson from Day himself, describing in detail what was happening at the time of the photo.

If you’re like us polar history junkies and appreciate Day’s work, he also offers prints and commissions. Just send him a direct message on Instagram.

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.