A couple of years ago a tramway (or light rail) was built in Canberra for the first time. I recently took some photos of the tram as it waited for a young woman with a big dog to board, and then compared my photos with one from my father’s war album, showing some soldiers standing beside a tram. It was hard to find out where his photo was taken. An internet search for Basta produces two places, one north of Cairo, and another in Beirut, Lebanon. The place in Egypt was a historical landmark whereas Basta in Beirut had tramways. I’m guessing this photo was taken there, when my father went there in 1942.
Basta Lebanon c1942
Canberra Australia 2022
How do the two photos compare? Everything in the newer photo looks sharp but that’s possibly because everything in it has existed for less than twenty years, trams, buildings, paving, the lot! Only the sky above and the land below are old! The writing on the signs in each photo, “Basta” and “Aussie”, shows the age difference; the former has fuzzy edges, the latter is clear. The new photo shows reflections from gleaming glass and metal whereas the old one makes the Basta tram look comparatively unshiny. The Canberra tram is bright red and in a colour photo looks great, but the colour distracts from the story (which is what I love about old black and white photos).
But while modern photo technology produces clearer images, it’s also good for revealing detail in the old images. The World War II photo in its album is about three by two inches and has a lot of dark shadows. I’ve had it professionally scanned and when I adjust it digitally, increase the light and reduce the darkness, some extra men appear, the ones standing in the tram who were invisible in the original! The old black and whites have untold detail hiding in the shadows, and it’s fantastic that we can now fiddle with the light and bring out hidden history.
These two photos have the tram in common but there’s coincidentally another small thing. The sign on the business beside the Canberra tram says “Aussie” and the men standing beside the Basta tram are Aussies.
162. Saw an electronic sign directing drivers to a Covid testing site, saying ‘RAT distribution only’.
163. Heard on the news that hundreds of nightclubs are closing, not just as a result of lockdowns, but because young people are drinking less these days, and when they do drink they prefer to do it during the day because the light is better for taking photos for social media.
164. Came across a stick bridge over a thin stream.
165. Most of these wintry mornings the sky is shrouded in fog, except today. The almost full moon shone into my room at 6 am, making sharp shadows on the wall.
166. Around the corner from my place is The Lovebirds Migration Agency. I noticed today the manager’s name on the door: Liz Hug.
167. Today I sent a translated play to a university journal editor for the 5th time since February. First time: original submission with short commentary as requested. Second: editor asked for a longer commentary. Third: a peer reviewer asked for more information. Fourth: editor asked me to join the commentary and play into one file and send it again. Fifth: he recommended changes of his own. I’ve disagreed with some of his suggestions, which might result in a sixth attempt to please him. All this trouble would be worth it if I were getting paid. But that would be even more unusual.
168. Out walking today I passed this bare weeping tree with a crested pigeon right on top.
155. A flock of silvereyes landed in my bare maple tree.
156. On a highway, I saw a sign to an artisanal chocolate shop down a country road. Drove for 12 kilometres before I found it. The chocolates were $2.50 each. I bought 4.
157. Walking through an empty park of gum trees I found a tiny free library all painted with native animals.
158. Had lunch at a local golf club where these coasters told me how the beer ‘One Fifty Lashes’ got its name.
159. Outside my window tonight the sky is clear for the first time in days and a perfect half-moon is looking straight at me.
160. Late this afternoon I watched an eastern spinebill feasting on my grevillea flowers.
161. This morning, at the golf club again (good place to write), seven women in hoodies, masks and sunglasses were unidentifiably walking along the golf course path taking photos of each other where non-golfers are not permitted.
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.
148. My son’s friend came today with a mandolin and played Edelweiss while we all sang. This is the first time I’ve seen a mandolin being played.
149. My local pond has so many cut reeds spread over the surface that they have formed a roadblock for the coots.
150. This morning I listened to a 1956 French recording of Claude Aveline in which he said ‘men think about things and women think about people’ (les hommes pensaient à des choses et les femmes pensaient à des êtres). Later today a man in my family coincidentally said that his favourite philosopher, Jordan Peterson, says ‘men like things, women like people’.
151. Two years ago today, two translators started a site called Translators Aloud and invited others to record themselves reading their literary translations. I was one of hundreds who were accepted, and today they put up a celebratory Youtube video: https://youtu.be/17QeLosu9Dk
152. First day of winter. Light pinpricks of snow fell this morning. It rarely snows in Canberra let alone when winter has barely begun.
153. Saw two swans swimming close to the edge.
154. I was awake this morning from 2 am till 6 am. At about 3, I heard swans on the pond calling to each other. What’s unusual? I’d read a poem yesterday by Wendell Berry, ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, which he wrote about waking in the night and going out to be with birds. When a newsreader told me tonight that it’s the 100th day of the war between Russia and Ukraine, I remembered the first line of this poem.
141. In Australia’s federal election today, the Labor Party won for the first time in ten years.
142. Visited a Redwood forest I’ve ignored for 25 years. It was planted in 1918 by Walter Burley Griffin, the American designer of Canberra, but we receive little rain here, about 620 millilitres a year, compared with the sequoia forests in California which receive up to 2000 ml a year, and consequently the trees have suffered from drought and, a couple of years ago, fire. But they’re fighting back.
143. Pressed too hard on a name on my Telegram app and inadvertently invited my son’s ex-girlfriend to what Telegram calls a ‘secret chat’. She joined it immediately, and I had to tell her it was not intended. I hope she didn’t hope…
144. Saw an ibis and a cormorant together by the pond.
145. Twice today I saw large flocks of birds land on top of nearby trees, one was a flock of red-rumped parrots, the others were starlings at twilight. Hundreds of them.
146. Went to see a play last weekend and today received a survey asking the question ‘How many people including yourself attended with you?
147. Asked the owner of the Nepalese Discount Grocery Store opposite my house why she leaves her flashing lights on 24/7. She says she can’t find the switch to turn them off.
I have this photo of the partial interior of an Egyptian mosque in about 1941, its archway and internal structures embellished with carved stonework. I don’t know the two soldiers in the image, but I bet they were looking at all this carving and painting with mouths agape. It’s a photo from my father’s World War II album, which he captioned ‘Temple’.
When I was in France in 2013 I visited a small cathedral in Elne, a short bus ride from Collioure on the Mediterranean, not far from the border with Spain. Its cloister is magnificent, breathtaking, with geometric and floral patterns on the cylindrical pillars and Biblical stories carved into the capitals of the square pillars. The decorated stonework reminded me of the photo from Egypt.
Is either image better than the other? Zooming in on the older picture reveals softness especially on the white decorated surfaces, but much of the detail is still clear and the men are identifiable. Zooming in on the 2013 pic reveals edges that are sharper though not perfect, a bit nervy. The shadows are darker, more distinct, making it all more black and white rather than grey and white.
Both images are appealing for their curves and verticals as well as the artwork that turns plain stone into a thing of beauty. It’s another case of geometric forms making an excellent subject for monochrome photography.
Today I’m comparing two black and white photos of basilicas. Recently I drove to the end of a street leading to a bushwalk up a hill and found a Ukrainian church near the beginning of the path. It’s very appealing, a pretty Byzantine-style church that looks larger than it is. It was closed that day but I walked around the whole structure and found it’s about the size of a large room.
Basilica of the Holy Virgin, Heliopolis, Egypt, c1941
Ukrainian Church of St Volodymyr, Canberra, 2022
Its eastern European architectural style reminded me of the basilica in Heliopolis, Cairo, in the photos from Egypt in my WWII collection.
A comparison of my photo of the Ukrainian church with my father’s old photo from about 1941 shows how much photography has improved in capturing detail. The leaves on the trees in the newer photo are individually visible in the foreground while the trees in the old photo look impressionistic.
I find that the soft edges and slight blur of the old photo evoke an emotion, a wondering, whereas the sharpness of every brick and leaf in the new one evokes a feeling of truth, as though the older photo is concealing unnecessary or ugly details while the new one wants us to know it all.
The Ukrainian church is made of creamy-orange bricks and is set before dark green bushland, and these colours give the image life. So my conclusion is that this image is not best in black and white. By contrast the church in Heliopolis, which is cream (I can see this in modern colour shots) in a setting of streets and colonnaded buildings, is best in black and white which emphasises the geometry not only in the church itself but also in the numerous arched windows and doors in buildings around it.