Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And in the days before colour photography became the norm, artists would do their best to create their own, applying pigments and dyes to black and white shots. It was a craft that required a painter’s touch and a photographer’s eye, producing results that combined that lay somewhere between the two disciplines.
As the onward march of technological progress put full-colour cameras in everybody’s pockets and glorious technicolour photography made artists of us all, the slow art of hand-colouring photographs all but disappeared overnight. Now, however, New York artist Shae Detar is bringing it back.
Specialising in dreamlike shots of women that she refers to as her muses, Shae works on photographs shot in large-format film. After she has developed, scanned and printed the images at large scale, she applies layers of colour by hand, working with inks, acrylic, gouache, oil paint and even charcoal. When she has coloured her image, she scans it again in preparation for the final print.
Though she defines herself primarily as a photographer, Shae takes her inspiration from painters like Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Picasso. She’s talked about how impressionist paintings from the 1800s seem to create a different world, somewhere in the imagination that no longer exists.
It’s a move back from the edge of realism. With their high resolutions, enormous zooms and intimidating processing prowess, modern cameras are capable of seeing the world with more clarity than the human eye. But sometimes that comes at the expense of photography’s emotional power. With its otherworldly colours and artistic embellishments, Shae’s work reminds us that art is about more than what’s immediately visible.
And that sometimes, the best way forwards is backwards.