Magic in Color and Black and White

I am not ashamed to admit that I have an addiction — an addiction to the Library of Congress Flickr Stream.

It is amazing.  There are gems glittering in the Gottlieb Jazz Photos collection, for example, that just tickle the ol’ fancy. There’s a beautiful set of Civil War Faces (tintypes all, haunting and lovely). There’s a terrific set of old photographs of Abraham Lincoln.

Right now, though, two particular things make magic for me: the 1930s-40s in Color and News in the 1910s.

The black and white photography in the latter — many or most printed from glass negatives — is something I adore. I love the effect, the way in which photos made in the ol’ photographic plate way shade the images they present. It’s an effect I try to achieve with my own inept digital photography, and cannot quite reach. It just isn’t quite the same. The computer’s no substitute for the chemicals and the light on the plate. See, for example, this recent addition (a photograph of Queen Mary of England and French statesman Raymond Poincare):

Queen Mary and Poincare (LOC)

There’s something about the way the light hits their faces and their clothes, something subtle and energetic about the sense of movement in the image. The figures in front pop from the background. There’s a sense of texture about them. It’s as if I could hear the rustle of the Queen’s dress and her parasol as she moves, as if I could feel the weight of the fabric of Poincare’s coat. They look natural and immediate — one imagines that it would be easy to tell them apart from costumed actors dressed in “period” style, simply by virtue of the natural comfort of their movement in their familiar environment and dress. They are both contemporary and nostalgic at the same time (from the point of view of this far-distant present). Black and white can have this effect, and I love it.

Color can have that past/present magic, too.

Barker at the grounds at the Vermont state fair, Rutland (LOC)

I can hear the barker, speaking a form of American English that features jargon I’ve never heard outside of very old movies, just as if he were speaking to me now. There’s a shabby glory about the image (much darker, much differently colored from the crisp brightness of a contemporary digital photograph). Someone in the comment thread at Flickr posted a “larger, cleaned-up version”, but I don’t think it’s really much of an improvement. The original is somehow rightly obscure and shadowed at points, much like the sideshow subject it represents. I can feel the temperature of the day in the colors fading from the signs.

I love this stuff!


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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