I recall, many, many years ago, having a discussion with my brother, Roger, as to whether we dream in colour or black and white. I was a young lad taking photographs, with a budget that could not even imagine the expenses involved in colour photography. He was older, wiser and a “proper artist” with tubes of watercolour paint of every hue. “Of course we don’t dream in black and white, black and white is a completely unnatural way of seeing the world brought about by the technical inability of you photographers“. The conversation took place sixty years ago and therefore I might not have remembered it word-for-word, but it went something like that. And no doubt, before the day is out, Roger will be correcting my faulty memory from the other side of the world.
We may not dream in black and white, but it is the palette of choice of my memory. I took this photograph fifty years ago on one of those little afterthought terraces up Southowram Bank in Halifax. Surely the grass must have been green, the stone brown and the sky blue: but I don’t remember it like that.
There is an enthusiasm at the moment to colourise old photographs. To do so, you make judgements about the correct colours to introduce to a scene. Sky is usually blue, and there is a fair chance that grass is green. But when I was a young, the sky was usually a mucky grey colour, and the grass could be as black as coal or as white as an old man’s beard. The world was monochrome …. and I still dream of it that way.
Just for a change, I know precisely where I took this photograph from some forty-odd years ago. The houses are still there, pinned to the side of Southowram Bank with all the gravity-defying stubbornness that only a Yorkshire builder can demonstrate. It is Blaithroyd Lane, Halifax, and if you turn to Google Street View or the like, the houses are unchanged. Trees, however, have invaded the hillside since this photograph was taken in the early 1970s, and the scale of the scene seems to have been transformed. You get the impression from this photograph that you could have watched a match at the Shay football ground from the back room window without the need of even a basic pair of binoculars. These days, the Shay seems a bus ride away. Perhaps it is the trees, maybe it was the lens I was using in my camera back then. More likely it is age-related perspective syndrome (ARPS) brought about by a surfeit of life.
The classic British seaside: sands, sea, boats and buckets. It doesn’t matter where it is or when it is. It can be a precious day snatched from the steam-filled clutches of a Victorian mill, or an escape from a Corona-driven lockdown. I have photographs of my Uncle Frank and Aunty Miriam sat on a beach during World War II watching bombers fly overhead. If the sun is even hinting at the possibility of coming out, then we British will head for the nearest coastline. We are lucky; for most of us they are far enough away to be a change, but near enough not to be a challenge.
This is an old print from a cast-aside album. The photographer may have wanted to capture his (or her) Auntie Vi or little Ernest. What they actually captured was a small work of art, and the very essence of the classic British seaside.
Uncle Harry was the nearest you could get to a celebrity in our family. For a time in the early 1930s he “trod the boards“, being part of a concert party that did the rounds of the seaside pier halls of Britain. He was never top of the bill, his job was to provide piano accompaniment to true stars like Miss Dorothy Woodhill, “the charming soprano” and Will Kimber, “the well-known Yorkshire baritone“. His name just about lives on in the form of a brief review of the Silhouettes Concert Party in the Bognar Regis Observer of the 17th June 1931. You can find it on page 4, just next to the advert for grey flannel trousers at 14/11 a pair.
He was not understood in working class Bradford in the late 1920s and early 1930s for either his desire to become an entertainer, or, I suspect, for his sexuality. After a couple of years touring the minor concert halls of Britain, he was constrained into a job as a clerk in a coal merchant’s office, and marriage to my father’s sister, Annie-Elizabeth. If J.B. Priestley had been writing their story it would have no doubt finished with a jolly sing-song around a piano; but, in reality, it was more like an Alan Bennet Talking Heads monologue. Bennet would have made much play of that advert for grey flannel trousers, and Miss Dorothy Woodhall, the charming soprano.
Like anyone else, I can see the beauty in a natural landscape. Find me a photograph of craggy hills sweeping down to mirror-smooth lakes and I will swoon with the best of them. Get me a picture of ripe-rich grain swaying in an evening breeze against a bucolic green background, and I will pin it over my mantlepiece. But ….
But, I come from Halifax, and my West Yorkshire genes are programmed to find beauty in muck and grime. In the grey sky being reflected on stone cobbles. In black chimneys punctuating flat clouds. In mischievous curves creeping into twisted railway lines.
A sack-load of art on the back of an old wagon parked in the shade of North Bridge, Halifax. I took this photograph fifty years ago. It’s all been knocked down now and they have built a nice new Leisure Centre in its place. There are probably inspirational pictures inside the Leisure Centre of mountain paths and bright green fields.
This old photograph of mine dates from fifty years ago and it shows a mill fire escape somewhere in Halifax. The good old days, before all this health and safety nonsense, when your mill could catch fire at the drop of a fag end, and a swift exit down the fire escape would give you more thrills than a trip to a theme park; followed by a hundred foot plunge onto a stone cobbled lane. People weren’t mollycoddled back then; their bodies weren’t wrapped in cotton wool ….. just their lungs.
The French writer, Andre Gide, once said, “art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” (well Google says he said it). Gide died in 1951 and therefore he missed out on smart phone apps. If he had lived on and managed to download a handful of camera apps for his iPhone, he might have considered amending his little homily to, “art is a collaboration between Apps and the artist, and the less the artist does the better“.
My recent experimentation with smartphone apps leads me to question much of the accepted narrative of art history. Were the likes of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Monet artistic geniuses way ahead of their time, or did they have access to a Beta version of Adobe’s new Photoshop Camera App? There are enough conspiracy theories going the rounds at the moment and I am reluctant to add to them – but I think we are due an explanation.
Halifax in transition again: blocks of flats, mill chimneys and gas lights. I must have taken this photograph in the late 1960s, but as with so many of my old photographs, I can’t quite work out where I took it from. Wherever it was, it is Halifax in a stone picture frame.
Most of us respond positively to a challenge. I don’t mean serious, grown-up challenges such as dry rot in your floorboards or your wife running off with the milkman, but life-enhancing challenges such as climbing a mountain or collecting matchbox labels. For some people it is pedalling a bike backwards up a very steep hill (good morning, Martin), for others it is skiing blindfolded down a precipice (how are you today, Ian); but for me it has always been dating old photographs.
For some reason, for the last shot on this particular strip of negatives, my attention was caught by a row of posters. The photograph may be of limited artistic interest, but what it lacks in creativity it more than makes up for with temporal significance. What us date-spotters love more than anything is a watershed, and what better watersheds have there been in the modern era than decimalisation. Back in February 1971 the world changed, and that transition from 12/6 to 62.5p provides nerds like me with endless pleasure. We therefore know that the photograph predates decimalisation.
There are dates on the posters, but no years, but dates themselves can be a useful tool in pinning down the exact year. The wrestling poster features a contest between Mick McManus and Mick McMichael, which, in itself, isn’t much use, as they seem to have fought each other on a weekly basis for more than a decade. But if they wrestled on Wednesday 13th August it must have been either in 1963, 1969 or 1975. The first of those dates is too early for most of my photographic activity, the last is after the introduction of decimal currency, and therefore we are left with August 1969. The qualifying round of the British Speedway Northern Riders Championship at the Halifax Stadium on the 9th August is the clincher, the detailed records held on the Official Website of British Speedway confirm that the event took place that night in Halifax in 1969 (Eric Boocock was the winner, by the by).
So, there we have it. I took this photograph in July or August 1969. Now that is settled, where’s my bungee jumping cord?