A world in sepia

Old photographs have a strange power. Of all the types of cultural heritage they have the property to evoke genuine emotions, even if they have no relation with us personally at all. That is probably why such interesting books and essays have been written about it by a variety of writers.

One of the most brilliant tv-films I have seen in recent years is Shooting the Past, written by Stephen Poliakoff. This sensitive, very visual and witty narrative benefits from an incomparably well-chosen cast, but it is the subject-matter which is truely mesmerizing.

Poliakoff revealed the power of old photographic images, the power for example to reconstruct a life long gone – given sufficient patience and imagination. Reading old photographs is an art that we have to learn, or re-learn. All rhetoric about our ‘visual culture’ that is used to attract people to art education veils the fact that most people are virtually blind with respect to deciphering complex imagery. Pavlovian reactions to fast-cut commercials, and pre-conditioned responses to the obvious images and icons which are the product of branding campaigns are not necessarily identical with visual sophistication.

Historic images add another level of complexity. It is fun, and, in an eery way, moving to peel away layer after layer when looking at such material.

Pavers at work, Loppersum (NL), 1901
Pavers at work, Loppersum, Groningen (NL), 1901

An example, dated 1901. The uncertainty principle of Werner Heisenberg applies. The presence of the photographer, who, while setting up his kit must have attracted the attention of passers-by, and of people who were alerted of his presence, in the scene blurs the boundary between ‘snapshot’ and ‘posed’. It’s the fluid state between the gaseous state of the objective observation, and the solid state of the staged scene. The boy who is looking over his shoulder, front left, carries a wooden panel, on which is written in chalk “1901”. So the photographer put his timestamp in the picture in stead of on the picture, as a part of the reality he is trying to capture, while at the same time moulding it and influencing it. This picture is probably created to identify place and time, a bit like the ‘clapper’ in the movie rushes, and as such not intended to be used or sold.

But, this also is reality anno 1901. The presence of a photographer always had this effect. People came out of their houses, and took position, posing. It was an event, especially in the village. Social stratification is still very obvious and visible in these old pictures. It would be great if a picture like this existed which allowed us, like in “Shooting the Past”, to tell the life-story of each and every person depicted.


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