Friday, April 13, 2012

The Permanence Of Photographs (In A Chaotic World)

Greetings Ship Mates! It is time to hoist your Weekend Flag and keelhaul your Dandos, because the Goode Shippe FB is back to sail the seas of fate and chance! Yes, in these uncertain times, when all is fluxed, it is reassuring to know that if you can afford a tea bag and a crust, and can press an 'on' button before the sun crests the mizzen mast, then your weekend is sorted!
This weekends little ditty is a bit of an FB exclusive, but you'll need to read to the end to understand that.

I guess I must have known the world was entering a state of chaos as far back as the mid-1980's when someone broke the Quantel computer our college had managed to gain access to for a period of months. The Quantel was a big thing. For a start the BBC used it for weather forecast TV animations and it was the bees knees - no really it was! This was the coming revolution which no one really guessed would take off in the way it did. Back in those days all the text and other things we used for graphics roughs and presentations was done by hand (or Letraset if you could afford it) - none of this modern instant stuff - oh no, it was pure hard graft!
On the new wunderkind, being able to 'airbrush' clouds onto one of the stock pictures loaded into the machine (of say, a Spitfire) was really something - it was . . er  . .great! (Even though the end result looked  . .er . . to put it politely . . . not exactly brilliant*).  But what were we to do?  It was said that they wanted to build this new direction so that students could be up and running into the new golden dawn!
As I remember it, someone with a natural curiosity dismantled the 'light pen' (that you used like a real pen) of this new acquisition, to see how it worked. The machine thought uh-oh . . INTRUDER and entered said state of chaos and refused to work.
They had to get some guy up from somewhere down South to fix it, but it was never quite the same again.
This is the Quantel:

(This is I believe a Mk II and I am pretty sure we were using a Mk II. If  you measure proportionately and estimate that pen as about 6" long then the drawing board could be anywhere between 24" and 30" long. Big stuff eh! Our Quantel even had its own rack!)

The thing I am trying to say from this is that at the same time that people were being schmoozed upstairs in Graphics about this fabulous future, downstairs, in the bowels of Photography, budgets were being cut and there was apparently 'no money' for new gear or materials.
It was a disgrace.
My lecturer at the time was feeling increasingly sidelined and a couple of years later he was shunted into early retirement. The future was set, digital imaging had come to stay and a world of technological avarice had landed. Obviously things were never going to be the same again.
When real money could have been spent on some much needed new cameras (we were using ancient and battle-weary equipment) that would have done the job in aiding creativity, it wasn't. Instead it was spent on the new thang - a proto computer graphics suite!
This was so advanced and cost so much (and became so incredibly dated, so incredibly quickly) that the fact that large amounts of money were thrown at it and not at something of permanence still gets my goat.
Chaos had come to town and nothing would ever make sense again.
It was obvious which way the cookie was crumbling, and something as deeply old fashioned as traditional monochrome photography was seen as being archaic.
And as for the monster? No work of any use was ever produced by the big, fan-cooled box of tricks, but it did look good when you had visiting lecturers disappearing into the room to sip coffee and say 'Gosh . . they must be important . . . they've got a Quantel!'.
What's that smell? yep, you guessed it . . . pure, Grade 1 BS.
FFWD 25 years and where is that behemoth of computing now? Well the roots of it are still around in Quantel systems which are widely used (and highly regarded and British) in broadcasting worldwide, but the actual Pandora's Box itself that caused such upheavel?  I'd bet on it no longer existing.
And yet look, the permanence of photographs and the permanence of technology:
Below is a print which I own. It was given to me as a goodwill gift for my future by Mr.Joseph McKenzie, said lecturer mentioned above. He is a great photographer and was an inspiring lecturer. Were it not for him, I would not be writing this - it really is as simple as that.

Crofter, Comrie, 1964

(This is the first time this image will have been seen by a lot of people (well probably anyone actually) and I hope Joe doesn't mind me putting it in FB, but his work needs to be seen and he has to be acknowledged and appreciated in his own lifetime!)**

The photograph was made at Comrie (near Crieff) in 1964 (the negative pre-dating the Quantel by some 20 years and no doubt still safely stored and archived); the print I believe to be of a similar vintage.
It is a stunning photograph and also a stunning print. The scan is actually pretty hopeless as there were hotspots on it - you need to see the original!
I can actually see a lot of similarities between Joe's work from the 1960s (his Gorbals essays *** especially come to mind) and Walker Evans' masterful work for the FSA in the '30's. Joe's photographs are revealing and beautiful and tender. He gave of himself and in return his subjects repaid him with an openness that is rare.
In this photograph the stoicism is obvious. Here are two workers confronting each other, one behind and one in front of the camera. They leave their pretences behind and let light and film and time record the moment. It is such an honest photograph.
There is a care-worn attitude to the crofter that is so incredibly Scots. If you look carefully you can see that those dungarees have been carefully darned but there's still years of use in them. It is obvious that crofting is not an easy life. Hands like that are not created by desk work!
I have no idea what camera Joe used, but it looks to be large format so I would hazard a guess at a Graflex which I know he used. Film could well be Tri-X which he was fond of, and he used to use D76 a lot . . . so maybe it is that combo . .who knows.
The print is on a matt paper which has an 'almost' platinum sheen to it, in that the darker areas have that metallic matt/gloss when angled towards the light.
It is dry-mounted and personally inscribed to myself on the back.
The print size is 6" x 8" and I have it stored safely in an archival sleeve and then in an archival print box. It is a jewel to be treasured.
Given that Joe took the utmost care to fix his prints properly and selenium tone them, I have no doubt that this photograph will outlast me by a number of generations.
Remember the saying:
"He who laughs last, laughs longest"?
It is entirely appropriate methinks.
Thank you Joe (for everything). 

* And sorry graphics animation people . . . computer animation still doesn't cut the mustard as far as I am concerned.
** When the V&A Dundee opens in the city to which he gave his working life (and which he documented with such care and passion) it would be utterly remiss of them if the first photographic exhibition they staged wasn't a McKenzie Retrospective.
*** If you can find his book 'Gorbal's Children' I can highly recommend it.


  1. I think you have just answered a question for me, thanks.

  2. I think you have just answered a question for me, thanks.