Black and white old graves

In the album my father brought home from the Middle East in 1942 there are several photos of graves and cemeteries. The one I’m posting here is quite moving. It seems to be an impromptu grave made for a pilot in the north African desert where Australians were serving. I’m comparing it with a photo I took in 2014 when I was doing some family tree research. Some of my ancestors were pioneers in western Queensland and are buried in Dalby, in a cemetery which looks fairly abandoned. This neglected family plot doesn’t belong to my relatives but their graves are nearby.

I’ve converted my photo to black and white to compare it with the photo from World War Two. The older one is a bit fuzzy but clear enough that we can make out the cross, the stones on the grave, the propeller, crash debris, and stubbly desert plants. But cameras have come a long way, as we can see in the newer photo if we zoom in, using the WordPress blog feature of clicking on the photo, then the ‘i’ information symbol in the circle, then ‘View full size’, then the plus sign.

The detail that’s revealed is surprising. For example, the headstone in the top left of my photo becomes completely legible. (At least, that’s what it’s like on my desktop monitor. I hope it’s the same for those looking at a phone screen.) But for the old photo, zooming in further only makes it even less distinct. The stones on the grave are recognisable as stones, but blown up they look more like black, white and grey forms. Perhaps a positive about old photos is that details are not too visible in scenes of destruction like this. We have to use our imagination because not all the information is there, unlike today’s graphic news images that require a newsreader’s warning before they’re shown on our screens.

N.B. My father wrote under the photo in his album: ‘Grave Flt Lt Smith’. I haven’t been able to find out more information.


365 Unusual Things: 176 – 182

176. In an electronically controlled public toilet, I pressed the door button to close it and a (male) voice said ‘The door is now locked. You have ten minutes.’ Then music played: What the World Needs Now is Love Sweet Love.

177. Practised street photography when hardly anyone was around in the ten-degree twilight, and snapped three people wearing pompom beanies. Caught the last guy hovering above the ground.

178. My son repaired a second-hand Nerf gun and shot my pear on the kitchen bench leaving smashed pear on the wall.

179. A car in front of me today had a registration plate with the slogan ‘Canberra: Age Friendly City’, as it drove past a roadside sign saying: ‘Aged Care in Crisis’.

180. Tonight I received an old WordPress message from the blog of a photographer who died 3 years ago. Very strange…

181. Saw a picture of an old woman’s hands illustrating a Facebook post today about a translation, a ‘beautiful piece on family and love’. I saw the same picture illustrating a news article yesterday about a 77-year-old woman who was fined for slapping a boy visiting her house.

182. On a main road I saw an electronic sign: “If you drive hammered, you’ll get nailed”. My Korean student asked me what it meant.


365 Unusual Things: 169 – 175

169. I was the oldest woman at a women’s conference today. Sat in a section of seating alone, surrounded by empty chairs. This was unusual.

170. At a morning tea, there was a promise of brownies, but they had been cut into one-inch cubes to make them go further.

171. A South American woman asked me to help her learn English. She was an engineer there, but here she’s a dental assistant. This is the 4th South American migrant I’ve known to be employed as a dental assistant.

172. Received an editor’s request to submit my translated play for the 6th time, to change single quotation marks to doubles. See entry for day no. 167 to read about the first five requests.

173. Drove over a dam wall and saw a powerful rush of water released from the lake behind it.

174. Saw a real pelican and a pelican statue on a dead tree in the local pond.

175. My neighbour left a budding orchid plant at my back gate and sent me a text message to let me know. She had grown it for a senior citizens event which was cancelled.


Black and white trams

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.

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.



365 Unusual Things: 162-168

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.


365 Unusual Things: 155-161

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.


Black and white small boats

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.






365 Unusual Things: 148-154

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:

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.

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry


365 Unusual Things: 141-147

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.


Black and white carved stonework

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.