Thousands of old Irish photos transformed through restoring and colourising

A passion for heritage and the discovery of some nifty new software has resulted in an Irish architect putting colour on thousands of old photographs, writes Marjorie Brennan

A family of survivors from the Lusitania in Cobh in 1915
A family of survivors from the Lusitania in Cobh in 1915

It began as a hobby but has become a viral hit, attracting the attention of politicians, academics, film directors and even a Hollywood movie star. Rob Cross has built up a large following on the social media platform Twitter with his colourised versions of historical photos, taking in everything from the Dáil meeting at the Mansion House to a 1892 photo of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island, with her brothers.

Limerick-born Cross works full-time as an architectural consultant in Dublin and began restoring and colourising photographs in his spare time.

“I work in a demanding job and it is a break from dealing with builders and contractors, planning consultants, all of that. I also find it very rewarding doing the research on the image as well.

Colourising is kind of easy, the restoration is the hardest part. I have to get rid of the tears, blemishes and reconstruct it. I tend to keep it as simple as I can so it doesn’t take over the photograph.

Cross is inspired by his love of history and also hopes to raise awareness of the importance of preserving our built heritage among his increasing number of followers on social media.

Castletownshend in 1910.
Castletownshend in 1910.

“I have been trying to encourage people to preserve our heritage and recognise the environment around them. Even just small things like revealing the existing brickwork by removing paint or plasterwork, removing the clutter of wiring, things like that, redoing windows.”

Cross uses artificial intelligence and deep learning technology, as well as Photoshop in the colourisation process. He says he has benefitted from the expertise of the huge online community involved in the colourisation of historical photos.

At the beginning, when I was looking at a way of colourising, I came across a Twitter account, Old Ireland In Colour, run by John Breslin, a professor in Galway. I got in contact with him and he showed me a Google collaborative platform where you can run the software in the cloud, you just need to know a small bit of code.

Cross also tracked down the guy who developed that particular app.

“His name is Jason Antic and he is in San Diego, he uses open-source code and he created the DeOldify software. He started off colourising photos for his family and started to get better and better at it. He signed a deal with heritage.com, so now you can register with them and for an annual fee, you can upload your photographs to them.

"It makes it easier to colourise but when you colourise it, it is not perfect. Sometimes it gets hands and faces wrong, it can make them brown or grey. That is when you take it into Photoshop and use lots of different techniques in terms of lightening tones. You can use a cloning tool to repair, then you layer it.”

Work it

Travellers at Cahirmee horse fair in 1954
Travellers at Cahirmee horse fair in 1954

Cross says it is important not to overwork an image.

“Once you start colourising something, it is never finished. But you don’t want to spend too much time on it. When it gets to a stage where it is coming to life, I craft a tweet, get the image together and release it. I tend to publish it with a bit of history and background; you don’t want to put something up on Twitter that is factually wrong.

“I might link in a street view of the present day or a before and after of the renderings. Then the thread takes on a life of its own, you get people commenting on them, which I really like, that interaction. I enjoy the history and architecture but when I’m finished and sharing it, I get enjoyment out of that as well.”

With more people at home and online now due to the Covid-19 crisis, Cross is seeing a big spike in interest in his colourised images.

“In the last 28 days, the impressions on Twitter are up to about 3.5 million. I’m just happy to be getting people into heritage and stuff like that. It is nice to get likes andretweets but it is not the quantity of followers, it is the quality. There are a lot of people with influence like councillors and politicians, journalists and academics. This helps with the issues that I like to raise awareness of, like the housing crisis, disability access, airbnb, design and heritage.

The colourisation and restoration opens other doors, I have actors and directors commenting on the images, and writers. There is one author who was writing a novel back in the 1900s and she is using my photographs to add detail. Teachers are also using it to engage their students; I can also change a colourised photograph into an animation.

To his surprise, Cross’s work has also attracted the attention of one celebrity. “I saw that Ryan Reynolds liked some of my photographs, and then he actually followed me. I thought it might be a bot but I checked the account and it had 15 million followers or something and he is only following 600.”

Calming effect

Fr Browne’s image of a Traveller family in Saggart in 1925
Fr Browne’s image of a Traveller family in Saggart in 1925

While Cross himself finds the whole process therapeutic, he says that feedback from followers suggests they also find looking at the images reassuring, especially now, in a time of great upheaval.

“What I find as well is that a lot of people find the images comforting and pleasant; a lot of people who suffer from depression like looking at the photos.”

Cross has had many approaches from people looking to purchase his colourised images but he doesn’t accept any renumeration.

I am not monetising it. If people want to buy something, I instead send them a high-res image and ask them to make a donation to Peter McVerry [charity for the homeless].

In terms of finding images, Cross finds the National Library of Ireland archives an invaluable resource, with many of the pictures he uses are from the library’s Flickr Commons photostream, To date, the stream has had more than 80 million views, and more than 50,000 comments contributed by researchers/armchair detectives from all over the world.

Friar Street in Youghal.
Friar Street in Youghal.

“The Flickr account is brilliant,” says Cross. “You can download the black and white and it is high enough resolution.”

Cross has been spending an increasing amount of time working on images and interacting with followers but says he is happy for it to remain a hobby for now.

“It is becoming like a full-time job but I don’t want to go down that avenue, even though it is nice to have that option. I want to share it, it’s like open source, I love it when artists and teachers and lecturers are using it, I’m getting around three million people a month engaging people in heritage, which has to be a good thing. There are a lot of conversations happening off Twitter as well, with people interested in doing colourising themselves.”

See Rob Cross’s images on @RobCross247 and instagram.com/robcross247.

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