Interview with Cookie Roscoe, hand-painting photography

I met with Cookie Roscoe this week so that she could introduce me to the finer points of hand-colouring black and white photography. In our tour of her photography gallery she revealed how this art is richly intertwined with her family history.

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“It is not always necessary to color every part of a slide.  Very frequently the slide in some portions presents the natural appearance of the object, and colour would only detract from the general effect.”        Lantern Slides, How to Make and Color Them,   D.L. Elmendorf, 1895


These directions for colouring lantern slides from over a hundred years ago say that you don’t have to colour the entire image. The goal is to enhance particular details for dramatic effect. You have some examples of this here.

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These are three black and white photographs. That’s my mother as an infant. I found it as a negative, printed it and hand-coloured it in water colour. In this case, it’s coloured through-out.  I even coloured the sunburst. It’s the effect of light leaking into my grandmother’s camera.


It’s like the visitation of some disembodied ancestor at the family picnic.

My mother never knew that image very well and was amazed when she saw it. She remembered the day very vividly.

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This is a glossy black and white photo in which I water coloured details such as my dad’s pencil in his pocket, because that was such a big part of him, and his hat, his skin. He has shadows in his eyes, above and below, there’s extra darkness added there. And his lips, I’ve given him red lips. I feel that he looks quite natural in this photograph but there were several hours spent in the highlights where his cheekbone reads white. And on his nose as well, I’ve gone back and lifted the colour out so that it doesn’t look fake… then I made the fish look very fake.

So you’re working with a mental image of your father?

I was working with the rules that I knew of how to hand-colour a photograph.

And then I tried this photograph. Fifteen times, I printed that photo with different degrees of contrast. Low contrast is considered right for hand colouring.  I finally realized that his photograph works in black and white and doesn’t work coloured.

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At what point did you discover that?

After five or six times trying to colour it… trying to bring the eyes forth, trying to clean out the whites more, trying to find the right colour for the hair… Until one day I compared the best one I had with the black and white and I still liked the black and white more.

What made you want to colour it to begin with?

Well it was a black and white and I hand colour black and white photographs. So, of course, it has to be hand-coloured.

But obviously this image had a special value and to colour it is to enhance it. I like how you mix together the language of colour enhancement and your emotional connection to the subject.


This is a boy that I was madly in love with and he gave me this goof-ball portrait of him and I gave him a green shirt and some hair and some flesh tone simply because it took me two or three hours to do it and I got to gaze on his image while I was doing it.

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I made a copy of this photo for each member of Kevin’s family and gave it to them for Christmas. On each print I coloured Jo’s glasses a different colour. It’s not important what the actual colour of things really were. As I was colouring I discovered so many things about these people. Where Mary’s dress is stark white, you take the colour out and where there’s shadow, you add extra layers of colour. So as I’m doing that I’m noticing different things about Mary’s smile. About the bashfulness of Mary’s stance, that Mary’s hair is wind-blown and Jo’s wasn’t. Norma’s gap-toothed smile, that’s Norma as an eight year old. I’ve never known Norma as an eight year old but after colouring the same image of her six times… You see things in photos that you would never see otherwise.


Tell me about your mother’s work hand-colouring photographs in Winnipeg back in the forties, fifties and sixties?


This is a photograph of my mother that was taken in Harold White’s studio.  He was one of the top photographers in the city. She was one of “Harold White’s girls” developing film and hand colouring. Her sister had been a hand-colourist as well. After she married in 1947 my mother would get a box from George, the delivery guy from Winnipeg Photo, with prints to colour and she would hand him a box to return. Photos from Toronto, and all over Ontario, all over Canada in fact, that needed hand-colouring until the nineteen sixties were being shipped to Winnipeg and it was my mother who did the hand-colouring.

She would receive instructions with the photos on what colours to use?

Yes, for instance, brides who wanted to show that they were carrying red roses at their wedding, had to carry white or yellow roses for their photos so that they could be hand-coloured red. In a black and white photograph red roses read as black.

As colour photography took hold, especially in the cities, hand-coloured black and white photography remained popular only in far flung places where you couldn’t get colour film or people didn’t yet know how to use it. So I remember throughout the nineteen sixties boxes of photographs being delivered that were primarily overhead views of farms; my mother coloured a lot of those.

There was also still a lot of family type photography from what we called Native Reserves. Colouring wedding photographs at all times was tricky.  There was a long list of things my mother had to pay attention to: what shade of lipstick the brides were wearing, the colour of the mother of the bride’s dress, the colour of the mother of the groom’s dress, etc. These things often carried a lot of importance and if an error is made it’s very difficult to reverse it. They were dictated by the clients to the photographer who was trained to take them down carefully.  The instructions from the reserves however usually simply read, “sky: blue, grass: green, face: brown.“

And where did your mother usually do the painting?

She had a desk in the living room with a mirror on it and the TV was at the other end of the room. The mirror wasn’t so that she could watch the TV it was so she could watch us. She would hand-colour on a deadline. She was paid fifteen cents a face for a 5X7 and twenty-five cents a face for an 8X10. She never made more than twenty to twenty five bucks a week. But that was enough to buy the groceries and contribute to the mortgage as well.

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So she would watch us watching TV, if the fighting would start she would take off her slipper and throw it at the boys and everybody would shut up and she would go back to  colouring for a while and then if it started up again she would throw her second slipper. And that was the last, there is no other slipper. If there was a problem, the TV would be turned off and everybody would have to go to their room.