I’ve talked about the distinctive qualities of black and white photography before on these pages, and how it has an uncanny ability to capture the spirit and mood of a subject far more intensely than colour. It’s something the greats of the genre understood and exploited brilliantly; from the epic landscapes of Adams, and the deeply personal portraiture of Karsh to the lyrical life observations of Bresson; they all utilised the cleansing distillation of grey-scale-monochrome to the ultimate dramatic effect.
However, while the great masters took black and white photography to the level of high-art, equally nostalgic monochrome images were being snapped countless millions of times by less gifted photographers across the globe. And while their results might not classify as works of art, they nevertheless rarely fail to evoke and to entertain.
The images presented here are intended as a case in point and offer a small glimpse into my childhood, growing up in suburban London, which for all its fatherless challenges was almost as idyllic as it looks…
And when melancholia was a pleasurable indulgence not a permanent state of mind…
So far as its visual content is concerned, this post follows on from a piece I did a few years back, and as with that one, I will allow the photographs to do the most of the talking. During our current dystopian circumstances, I find these images of bridges have taken on added poignancy as symbols of freedom, and most pertinently, of travel. While I yearn for signs of a return of some basic common sense from both those who govern us, and most of those they govern, these low-key “BC” photos of bridges from a dream-like past help me retain a degree of sanity if not much hope…
From top to bottom: Amsterdam, Newcastle Upon-Tyne, Prague, Padua and Dusseldorf.
Cameras used, Nikon FE (using Agfachrome), Nikon D80 and Canon EOS 5
Shortly after my mother Hannah passed away I discovered a large box full of old photographs, going back to before the turn of the previous century. Although they are primarily a record of my maternal family, they are actually so much more than that, as anyone can see from the small selection I have included here. In fact, they comprise a vivid documentary glimpse into the recent social history of London and south east England, before, during and following the Second World War.
For this post I have selected nine photos of assorted people enjoying various outings, from attending functions, and days out and about in London, to summer vacations, away from “The Smoke”. The expression, “a different world” hardly comes close!
It’s always intrigued me that the greatest photographs of landscape ever taken, by the incomparable Ansell Adams, were all in black and white. To this day, when scenes of Yosemite or the Grand Tetons enter my my mind’s eye I invariably see them in Adams’ deeply contrasted, brooding monochrome. For me, as for so many others no doubt, American Sublime is at its most sublime in Adams’ black and white.
Hence, it might surprise some to know that with the advent of Kodachrome film in the late 1930’s, Adams also took thousands of pictures in colour. His main reason for not publishing most of them seems to have had something to do with the lack of control he felt had over the finished image. Whereas with his black and white work he had total mastery over the entire process, he found colour film (especially early colour film) unreliable as a medium of his vision.
Bearing this in mind, it would be fascinating to know what Adams would have made of the digital photographic world of today? While I suspect, in common with many current “film-purists”, he would have been inherently suspicious of film-less images, I also think it’s possible at least, that he would have been equally intrigued by the almost limitless control offered by tools like Photoshop. Whether or not he would have been sufficiently titillated to swap the darkroom for the desktop I somehow doubt, but it’s fun to ponder.
Apart from the fact I share the singular form of Adams’ surname as my forename, my own photographic offerings have little in common with the great late master, either as to quality or as to ambition. However, the hypothetical conundrum I pose for Adams above, is something that I, and thousands of my contemporaries – professional and amateur – have actually had to confront. In my own case, I at first resisted the transition from film to digital, until one day, during the early 90’s, a retired professional photographer friend scanned an old film of mine, for me to “play with” using the hitherto unemployed Corel software on my Gateway computer. I was hooked within moments and traded in my old Nikon film camera for a Nikon digital camera the next day. And, over the subsequent years, as I’ve gradually upgraded both my camera and my computer software, I’ve never once regretted the decision.
The photos here were taken on that first, crude Nikon digital camera, and remain to this day the closest I’ve ever got to emulating Ansell Adams himself – at least with subject matter (the scenery around Banff in the Canadian Rockies) if not in quality. They are presented in their original colour form, side-by-side with Photo-shopped monochrome twins. I upped the contrast to deepen the shadows and dramatise the tones in an attempt to give them a more “Adams feel”, and to see whether I would prefer them, or the original colour images. In the end, for me at least, there is no contest, and thus much to consider for my future landscape photography…
My continuing trawl through thousands of old slide films for scanning is proving to be not merely a trip down memory lane, but more a long voyage of haphazard, bitter-sweet (mostly sweet) rediscovery.
Because the films are all mixed up in no chronological or subject order , the experience of going through them is somewhat dreamlike in its lack of thematic anchorage. One moment I’m back in my childhood town of Edgware looking into the eyes of my first girl friend; the next, I’m hurtling down an Italian Alpine ski slope with the Martini ad music playing in my head before finding myself on a ferry in the middle of Puget Sound. By the time I’ve completed a couple of hours scanning I feel emotionally jet-lagged. And so it was the other day when I came across one single complete black and white film of a lazy April bank holiday spent in Regent’s Park around 1983.
However, unlike so many of the mostly hazy memories evoked by this process, I found I recalled this particular day in almost every detail. For whatever reason that day is a vivid memory and being suddenly confronted by visual images of it was akin to being back there in the park. And, even more mysteriously, the fact the photos were monochrome merely crystallized my recollections .
For all of that, whether or not they are worthy of illustrating one of my posts, I am not so sure. However, if this does turn out to be simply an exercise in self-introspection, I do hope my that my regular readers and followers will indulge me this once. After all, at their core, these posts form an autobiography, and as such it would be incomplete without memories as colourful as this – albeit, in black and white…