Using digital photography to make historical portraits come to life (Not literally)

I have been fascinated with history, among other things, portraits of the medieval era. It makes me wonder how people actually looked like in that time, and also how they would look like in the present era. The era that fascinates me most is the Tudor era, actually, I am obsessed with that era. 

In this blog I am going to talk about how digital photography, specifically photoshop,  has made it possible to get an idea about how people of the past might have looked like. 

Famous people in the Tudor Era recreated into Modern-Day people 

When I watched a YouTube video titled Henry VIII and his Six Wives Recreated as Modern-Day people, I could not help but feel some sort of admiration towards the digital advances, in terms of replacing painting with photography to capture an accurate image of a person. Photography is generally perceived by the public as portrayal the so called truth, and the painter according to an article titled Photography Versus Painting, is not supposed to present an accurate depiction of reality, but to alter it slightly, one could interpret that a painter is supposed to create an idealised version of reality. 

The way painters do that is by making the object or subject matter more appealing, such as the depiction of Henry VIII’s wives as having fair and clear skin to match the ideal female beauty of that era. On the other hand, this could also link to photoshop as many photographers for magazines for example use photoshop to make the models’ skin look clearer by removing pimples and blemishes.

However, in the case of recreating Henry VIII and his wives, the people depicted have died more than 400 years ago. Therefore, in order to recreate the images to modern looking people the artist used the art of photoshop. 

First of all, what is photoshop? Photoshop is a mechanism that gives you the opportunity to enhance or alter images via editing. According to an article titled What is Photoshop?, graphic artists, along with photographers make use of photoshop to improve upon images they took for instance, by changing the background, or the lighting of the image to make it clear that the subject matter is the focus of the picture. 

In the case of the reimagining of the portraits of Henry VIII and his wives, the artist recreating the art pieces, used the original portraits as inspiration for their work. One of the ways they changed the art piece was by replacing the typical 16th century clothing and hairstyles to more a modern look such as t-shirts and a suit for Henry VIII, and also open hair for Henry’s wives which was considered inappropriate at the time of the Tudors, as it was required to cover your hair with a hood for modesty. The lighting and background reminded me of studio lighting, which also contributes to a more present day look, as it resembles a photoshoot for a magazine cover.

Clothing in this sense, reveals a great deal about the era of the creation of the portrait, in this case, 16th century, as well as what was considered fashionable in that era. Thus, changing the clothing to modern looking clothing is what makes the artwork appear more present day, as it conforms to the current standards of beauty or fashion. 

Why recreate historical figures as modern-day people?

The reason why artists or photographers want to use digital photography and photoshop to recreate people of the past into the contemporary world, is to answer people’s questions about how people might have looked like then. Some people might be curious about how people in the Tudor era, for example, looked like if they were in the modern era. The reason for such curiosity might be that painted portraits are not entirely accurate when showing someone’s appearance, as opposed to photography. As I have previously mentioned, photography  is more truthful when showing one’s appearance than paintings, but despite this there is also an opportunity to enhance certain parts of the photograph with the use of photoshop. 

Another reason why artists might recreate famous portraits to modern depictions because it might be fun to imagine. It gives people more of a sense that those people in the past were actually people, and not just kings or queens. This in turn humanises those people to a certain extent. 

In the video titled  Henry VIII and his Six Wives Recreated as Modern-Day people, the portraits and the recreations look similar to a certain extent in terms of facial features. The only difference is the change from the then contemporary outfits to a more current look. In my opinion, the artist’s work is well made as they did not completely change the appearance of the subject matter, but altered the outfits and hairstyles using photoshop. This shows that digitalisation has given us the possibility to  create visual enhancements of appearances of historical figures. 

Conclusion: My thoughts on recreating portraits into modern depictions using photoshop

Personally, I think it is amazing what technology, specifically digital photography can allow us to do. I have been intrigued with the Tudor era for a long time, and was always curious about how people like Anne Boleyn or Catherine of Aragon might have looked in real life. 

There were a decent amount of sources describing their appearance, but just like how I have mentioned in my previous blog about visual learning, I appreciate a visual representation of historical figures. 


Henry VIII & His Six Wives Recreated as Modern-Day People. The Modern faces of the Famous Tudors, Royalty Now Studios, video posted: February 19th, 2021.