Saturday, 20 March 2010
Photo at Sunset
Today I wandered down to the informal array of market stalls that congregate on the stretch of Kingsland Road between The Old Fox pub, and the Dalston Oxfam. I say stalls, but really it mostly consists of a bunch of red faced, snaggle toothed booze-hounds hawking tat off blankets, alongside a couple more legitimate enterprises (burger bar, carpet van).
I don't quite know what the deal is, except that this weekly event coincides with the prior manifestation of assorted piles of bric-a-brac in evenly spaced piles along this stretch of road, presumably dumped legally, which I assume the various chancers pick through to resell off the pavement (I'm guessing not so legally).
Off to one side this week were two old lads, selling stuff off trestle tables by a battered white van, consisting mainly of printed ephemera from the early-to-mid 20th century, such as scrap books, old postcards, magazines and cigarette cards. One of the things I turned up whilst rifling though was a copy of The London Evening Standard from the day of Queen Elizabeth's wedding to Prince Phillip, the two of them looking surprisingly young in spite of the ancient yellowing paper and coarse black ink trumpeting their union.
Something else that caught my eye, and occupied me for the better part of twenty minutes, was a box of old black and white photographs, dating from the era when it was a professional, or rich man's pastime. Amongst them were an array of portraits of individuals unknown (genteel chaps in wooden chairs, bonny lasses in tweed twinsets), presented as portfolio items from professional photographic studios, along with various pictures identified on the back as belonging to the archives of a long defunct London Newspaper's archive, including, oddly enough, more photos of our monarch, smiling demurely at assorted bland looking civic opening ceremonies.
Whilst rooting through these I turned up an image that caught my eye, and turning to one of the vendors – resignedly engaged in the slow process of reloading everything into the van – asked its price. "That one? 50 pee" he said without enthusiasm, returning to the task at hand as the skies muttered of rain. I paid him and hopped on the bendy bus, back to Dalston Junction.
I'm not sure what it's of, exactly. Obviously a horizon at near sunset, with what look to be ruins of a church, or some agricultural edifice in the mid-ground. But what of the figures tramping from left to right; who might they be? Farm labourers? they appear to be carrying bundles, or hoppers of something. Perhaps the single feature in this composition that draws my attention the most is the youngster in the foreground, who looks like he may be running toward the cluster of individuals on their obscure mission.
It's quite dramatic, almost chiaroscuro-like in its striking use of dark and light, which suggests some skill in development. Last year I shot off two rolls of black and white film on my dad's old Nikon SLR. Between buying the film and developing it, it came to almost 50 quid. I'd envisioned coming out with some dramatic, 'arty' shots of my Greek holiday and Notting Hill Carnival, but instead, (what I presume to be) Snappy Snaps lacklustre treatment rendered them weedy, grey, and lacking in tone – which leads me to deduce that half the skill of analogue photography is in the deprecated alchemy of the darkroom.
Aside from its visual impact, it also has a haunting quality. They possess a strange gravitas, these anonymous photographic fragments that you chance upon in junk shops and jumble sales, perhaps as much as anything because they are fragile, physical artifacts. We now live in an era of super-abbundant amateur digital photography, whose ready accessibility (for better or worse) on websites such as Flickr, relegates the need for the tangible printed object to the odd wedding album, desktop photo of loved one or pet, or snapshot of significant event. I personally have never had a digital photograph professionally developed.
Looking at this photo now, one of the things that strikes me is the possibility that this single, slightly battered image, is possibly the only one of its kind remaining – the negatives presumably long gone by now – which in some ways would make it an oddly special thing, given that photographs do have the capacity to be replicated indefinitely. Or does it in fact have sister prints, languishing in drawers and shoeboxes around London? I guess I'll never know, either way.*
*I suppose there's always the third possibility that this is quite a famous, commonly reproduced image, in which case I'll feel pretty silly.