The ocular proof

“The camera will present [artists] with the most faithful transcript of nature, with detail and breadth in equal perfection, while it will leave to them the exercise of judgment, the play of fancy and the power of invention.”

Roger Fenton, 1852

Historians today have access to a vast collection of records and many of these are available on-line. But to my mind, nothing animates the mind like a wonderful, atmospheric, black and white photograph. Photography became part of the historical record with the popularisation of the Daguerreotype in 1839 and for a century photographs were almost exclusively black and white.

Francis Henry Pilbeam and family, 1903

Of course all photographs are snapshots of one tiny point in time; usually posed, particularly in the early days of photography, and often intended to convey a specific view of individuals. Few smiles, otherwise the Victorians thought you would look like a lunatic. And no actions shots, the technology was not refined enough for this, so life necessarily looks sedentary. In many cases it is a miracle that these photographs survived at all. We are lucky to have them; oh, how we would love a photograph of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn! But we do have Holbein. And we like to be remembered, whether in image or epitaph (think of the ancient Romans).

Reading into these thoughts from a local history perspective, the images we see are fascinating, atmospheric, but lacking in vitality. We must paint the colours on a black and white canvas and imagine the noise of everyday human interaction. And I guess that this is the mystery of history, we can illuminate the past, but never quite touch it. And that is as it should be.