The Friday Fillip: When We Were Greyscale

We called it black and white, but in truth it was all shades in between. It was how we saw movies, how our photographs looked. And somehow the eye didn’t blench or weep for want of vibrant reds. We made up the colours in our minds, perhaps — it’s difficult to remember the ur-experience now that Dorothy’s landed in Oz and LCDs play across a full 60 inches — or perhaps we simply didn’t care about colour, pushing through to the essentials such as the story or the memory of an event.


Nature anticipates the greyscale with its retinal rods, twenty times more numerous than our clown-hat cones — and a thousand times more sensitive to light too. These are the twilight receptors, extending the limits of our days past the brief and bumptious hours the sun allows into a time once called cockshut, “as when a man cannot discerne a dog from a Wolfe.” Indeed, our fine “greyceptors” even let us detect our hand in front of our face in the darkest of nights outside as it blocks the minimal background radiation from space.

I had these thoughts as I looked at a trove of “black and white” photographs recently put on line and publicized by Montreal’s McCord Museum. The Notman Photographic Archives contain over 600,000 photographs from the studio of William Notman, and together with thousands more span the years 1840 to 1937. It’s a little difficult to make your way around in the collection — the “browse” function is broken at the moment, leaving you to search, if you know what terms interest you, or simply search everything, producing a giant list of pictures. Mind you, there’s value in scrolling through the past this way or in stabbing at page number 453 of 3236, for instance, (bringing up, as it happens, a mighty regal looking Edward VII and a clutch of other royals).

Easier, though, is to stroll through the selections made for you by the McCord and posted on Flickr as 100 “Views of Canada“. Beyond Notman’s photographs, the McCord has also posted hundreds more pics of Canada past to Flickr.) There and in the Notman Archive proper you’ll find a broad selection of images: buildings, landscapes, important politicians, and some of ordinary people. Here’s Cape Charles, Labrador, in 1908, for example:


And there’s a (to me) poignant region in an otherwise uncomfortable portrait of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill:


The part that caught my eye is this:


There has been some recent colourizing of old photos, and while the results are interesting, I’m not a fan. The past belongs in greyscale, I feel. Now, I realize that already there are ten full prousts of the recent past in Kodachrome, and soon my greyscale past will fade to black; but for the moment I enjoy the subtle tones of silver, slate, smoke, steel and stone that speak of the twilight that in some strong sense is the past.

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