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Colourful Past with a bright future

Living

 

Matt Loughrey hopes his striking new photography project, My Colourful Past, will make history more compelling

Interview
Ger Flanagan

0108 matt-loughrey 1000MATT Loughrey (right) was just a child when he received his first camera as a present from his late uncle David. It was merely the shell of an old Praktica model, but at the time it provided more than enough spark to ignite a curious mind and send Matt on what would turn out to be a spectacular life journey.
His latest project, ‘My Colourful Past’, involves the Murrisk-based photographer taking iconic black-and-white images and bringing them to life in vivid colour through a time-consuming and delicate process called ‘colourisation’. The breathtaking results have attracted huge global interest and continue to do so.
Born in Gloucester, England, to a mother from Achill, Matt left school and entered the working world with a fondness for travel.
With his camera by his side at all times, his travels and passion for photography brought him to all corners of the globe, seeing the most magnificent scenery the world has to offer. Eventually he settled in Australia, a country he loved, but a short trip home to the west of Ireland with intentions of saying his goodbyes brought with it more than he had bargained for: fatherhood.
“I was in Australia for a few years working and traveling and I came back to say cheerio to my family,” he told The Mayo News recently. “I was going to return and stay, but then I found myself a Dad and the rest is history – and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
“We came here as kids every summer and Christmas without fail. It was what we always waited for. We had that sense of community instilled in us as kids and we never got to use it in England, so we used to love coming back here to be ourselves.”
That was 2005, and his first job in Mayo comprised of being a Croagh Patrick tour guide. The job proved good training for a huge project he undertook several years later, when he ascended the Reek for 365 consecutive days, taking photographs each day and raising money for St Vincent de Paul in the process.
“It was an amazing time, and I met some brilliant people, but I wouldn’t do it again,” he laughed.

Transition
The transition from photography to colourisation, Matt explained, came about after he started to feel a sense of unease about his life-long relationship with his camera. It had become an unhealthy obsession, and he felt his own rising profile had started to eclipse the work.
“Photography and having a camera became very habitual, and I don’t think it was healthy for me,” he revealed. “Everyone seemed to like my work and it was getting places, winning awards and being featured in Hot Press.
“They were painting this amazing picture of [me as a photographer] and I never felt that I was [as good as they made me out to be]. I felt very detached from [the photography] and I was using it as some sort of shield. I thought I just had to let it go, which was a shame, because I really enjoyed it.”
Matt sold his beloved camera to a Louisburgh woman who had been following his Croagh Patrick adventure on Facebook, and he candidly admits to not having taken a photo for a number of years now.
His love for digital design and creation introduced him to the art of colourisation, and after bringing to life some old black-and-white photos for family members, the penny dropped about its potential.
“I remember flicking through history books and encyclopedias as a child and finding it incredibly boring, it was just stocks of black-and-white imagery.
“But with colourisation I saw a gap with educational merit … Even my own two sons now are interested in history after seeing historic faces and places in colour.”

In demand
Last January, Matt received a call from National Geographic about doing a feature after they became aware of his work. He choose ‘The Space Race’ as his subject and only last month featured in their magazine that sold over 6 million copies.
Computer giants Dell subsequently got in touch to use Matt’s work for their latest marketing campaign. During that collaboration, he networked with Dell’s marketing teams, and they in turn helped him devise a plan to achieve his educational aims.
“It might sound a bit boring to a lot of people, but the end game for this project is to get involved with the Department of Education,” he said. “I have sent a few emails to the Department of Education in the UK, and I got a reply from the Secretary of State for Education, saying they are really impressed with my examples and they are recommending me to the TES, an industry for supplying educational tools and equipment.
“I want to replace stock imagery with colour equivalents in textbooks and encyclopedias to really engage our minds.”
Looking to the immediate future, Matt also revealed that he is currently working closely with Ken Widner, nephew of brothers Clarence and John Anglin – the only known inmates who escaped Alcatraz prison – on an upcoming documentary. He will be colourising all the photographs for the documentary, which is due out mid-way through next year.


Bringing the past closer
To carry out his work, Matt uses a Wacom Intous Pro prototype tablet with a piece of software created in the ’90s by two Israeli MIT students called Neural Networks. It took over four months to adapt the software purely for colourisation, but it yields over 90 percent accuracy.
The colourisation of an image is a painstaking process, with each photograph requiring between four and 12 hours work.  
As the project grows in stature, Matt revealed that he does not want to be its poster boy; for him, it’s all about educating the viewer.
“It is about education. History is so interesting and when people are brought closer through colour; you just engage more.
“I like black and white too, because it makes you think. But this is healthy and positive. I’ve touched on some pretty negative subjects in my work but people are seeing them in a new light, and a new narrative comes with that.
“Perhaps people will learn a new fact, share that information and just grow a bit more. Before you know it, you might have a few more students picking history or even getting an extra question in an exam, so why not?”

You can follow Matt Loughrey’s work on his Facebook page ‘My Colourful Past’.