In 2014 on a visit back to Brisbane I saw a little boat moored near mangroves, with nothing on it but an old un-upholstered deck chair. I imagined the skipper sitting in comfort and drifting over the bay as he fished. A humble man who liked simple pleasures. I took a colour photo, but today I’ve converted it to black and white and am pleased with the result. The subject of the boat and deck chair has enough nostalgia to give it a story that needs to be read.
The need to read a black and white image is a large part of its appeal today, like the one from my father’s 1941 collection from Egypt. Unlike the humble skipper I imagine in the newer boat, the hands-on-hips, pipe-smoking, standing man has a captain’s attitude while neither of his actual sailors seems to have any authority. He is telling the photographer he’s superior. A typically colonial situation.
Now to compare the photography of the two images.
The 2014 photo has sharper, more defined shadows, the water in Moreton Bay is almost tangible, the mangrove leaves are individually recognisable, and even if we can’t see the leaf colour, the darkness and reflected light tells of a deep green.
The 1941 photo of a sailing boat on the Nile is more painterly, the background trees hard to separate, the facial features of the three men not easy to discern, and the water doesn’t have the transparency of that in the newer image. What keeps me looking at it is the whiteness. The white sails. The white paint on the boat. The white trousers, shirt and hat of the standing man.
It’s the contrast that matters in monotone images. And so the newer photo works well because of the light colour (actually sunbleached pale blue) of the boat against the dark water and mangroves.
My judgement for this black and white comparison is that the quality of detail visible in the newer image makes it more interesting, even if the old one tells a better story.