Using color to bring scenes of old Bytown back to life

Michael Moir doesn’t always see things in black and white — especially when it comes to nostalgic photographs of old Ottawa.

By day, Moir works for the city’s traffic operations department, where he supervises the sign shop.

On his own time, he’s the graphic artist behind Damn Fine Prints Canada, which specializes in vintage tourism-style art prints featuring iconic scenes from across the country.

Originally from Edmonton, Moir says there’s just something about Bytown that captured his curiosity.

“I just love history, and Ottawa history in particular,” he said. “I just really love all the architecture in the city, I love old signage, I love discovering all of the things in Ottawa that no longer exist.”

I can almost walk around Ottawa and picture how it used to be.– Michael Moir

He’s especially fascinated by the black and white photos that would pop up on Facebook pages such as Old Ottawa and Bytown Pics.

He’s discovered others by searching through Archives Canada, the city’s archives and the collections of renowned local photographers James Ballantyne and William James Topley.

Positive feedback

Using some of the skills he developed on the job, and armed with an iPad, an Apple Pencil and the digital art app Procreate, Moir began adding dashes of color to his favorite old photos. When he shared them online, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

“It just really makes me happy that people enjoy it and they enjoy the colourization,” he said. “People say — and I feel the same way — it just really brings it to life, it makes it feel so much more real and present.”

A man holding an Algonquin Park poster stands in front of a colorful tree.
Moir is the graphic artist behind Damn Fine Prints Canada, which specializes in vintage tourism-style posters like this one. Moir sells his prints, postcards and other products online and at various local retailers and events. (Submitted by Michael Moir)

For Moir, a key part of the process was the research that went into making sure he’d chosen the correct shades for the signs, clothing, vehicles and brickwork seen in the old pictures.

While he strives for historical accuracy, sometimes there’s a degree of guesswork involved.

“It’s a bit frustrating sometimes,” Moir said. “I just also want to make something that’s pleasing to the eye.”

When he gets it right, Moir believes the colored photos can help people see our shared history through a new lens.

“I just really like to do this so that people can enjoy the photo in a different way,” he said. “I can almost walk around Ottawa and picture how it used to be.”

Moir recently shared several examples of his restored photos with CBC News.

A royal train

Boys stand near a building decked out for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in Ottawa in 1897.

At 126 years old, the first vintage photograph Moir colored and shared online is also the oldest.

It depicts the offices of the Canadian Atlantic Railway at the corner of Sparks and Elgin streets, decked out in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

“I just found it really interesting because it’s all these buildings that have disappeared from where the war memorial is now,” Moir noted.

Some of his color choices were obvious — the red, white and blue Union Jack, for example — while others, such as the purple backdrop, required an educated guess.

According to one account, the light display flashed to give the appearance of a waving flag. That would have been considered quite a spectacle at the time, as would the presence of a photographer — all evidenced by the excited youths standing on the sidewalk in front of the building, several of whom were staring back at the camera.

“It just was a really interesting streetscape to see how life was in Ottawa 100-plus years ago,” Moir said.

Got milk?

A milkman hands a carton of milk to a woman standing in front of a milk truck in August 1959.

This photo, dated to August 1959, was likely a promotional shot for Clark Dairy, a locally owned and operated company until 1974 (the Clark brand was retired in 1981 and became Neilson).

It shows a Clark milkman handing a thoroughly modern carton of milk to a woman on a sidewalk in a pleasant-looking suburb.

Through his research, Moir determined the Clark truck was almost certainly bright red. The woman’s outfit presented a greater challenge, so Moir hunted online for similar vintage skirt patterns and settled on olive green.

He hasn’t pinpointed the location, but noting the unpaved road, Moir believes that when the photo was shot the neighborhood had just been built.

“It’s something that people locally would probably remember if they’re old enough,” he said. “It was just a fun little scene.”

Signs of the times

A convenience store covered in signs on a street corner in the 1940s.

This photo shows a convenience store at the corner of Bank Street and Glen Avenue in Old Ottawa South, likely in the 1940s.

“This one grabbed my attention right away. It just screamed that it needed color. There’s so many signs there, and I find it so interesting,” Moir said.

To get the colors just right on the Pure Spring and British Console signs, Moir hunted out images of antiques from the same era. The ice cream sign was trickier, but the shade in the original black and white photo suggested it was blue.

Similarly, Moir found images of the same car seen parked at the curb and discovered it, too, was available in a bold blue at that time.

“People really liked this one when they saw it on Facebook,” he said.

Occasionally, someone will tell Moir he got a color wrong. If he can verify the error, he’ll make the change.

“I’m not a historian,” he said. “I have no problem with that.”

Gone but not forgotten

A street in Ottawa with street cars in the 1920s.

“Aw man, I love that photo so much,” Moir said of his final example.

The photo, likely taken in the 1920s, looks north up Elgin Street, with Laurier Avenue crossing the frame in the foreground.

With the exception of the Château Laurier’s spire peeking over the rooftops, none of the buildings in the photo — the old Knox Church, the old City Hall, the apartments on the right — remain standing.

To get the shade of the bricks just right, Moir found similar apartment blocks still standing in Montreal and copied the colours. For the spires and cupolas atop the other buildings, he studied old hand-tinted postcards from the era.

Moir especially likes the human details in this photo, including the people waiting to board a red Ottawa Electric Railway Company streetcar, and the sign advertising “RM Perkins, Dispensing Druggist — Graduate Druggists Only Employed.”

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