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.
There’s a photo of feluccas in my WWII collection, a captivating image of Egyptian boats sailing on the Nile. It doesn’t make me want to sail on one, but it does hold my complete attention with its beauty of vast white sails amid blacks and whites and greys.
Feluccas, Nile River, c1941
Learner sailboats near Black Mountain ACT 2022
The grace and fullness of their sails, the rounded triangular bow of the wooden boat, as though cloth were wrapped round the hull and pulled up to a point, the thin leaning mast, all of it, whenever I rediscover this photo in my collection I can’t take my eyes off it.
Visiting our local sailing club a few weeks ago, I saw some learners in boats with white sails, and compared the sight with the group of feluccas in my photo. I momentarily wished I was standing by the Nile. I’ve converted the photo of the club boats to black and white for comparison with my father’s photo from 1941, but I see that the beauty of the older image is all in the size and whiteness of the foreground sail outlined against the sky. The tree on the right, leaning out at the same angle as the sails, is also pleasing. And the wind in the sails shows the boats are moving. A good composition.
On the other hand it’s hard to detect movement in the modern photo. A loss. However, there is no loss in removing the colour, and possibly a gain, as the image is composed of greys and whites, with only a fluoro green stripe on each sail and dark green bushland on the mountain. Reducing it to black and white turns it into a story rather than a happy snap.
My judgement after comparing the two photos is that the 1941 image is superior. After looking at colour images online of feluccas, I’m convinced that some photo compositions are better without it.
106. Made an Osterlamm, an Easter lamb cake. In Europe it’s not unusual, but no one in my circle of Australian friends and family has ever heard of it.
107. My week-old grandson (my only grandchild so that’s unusual on its own) was crying until my son started playing piano, quite loudly, and the baby went silent. Instantly.
108. For another son’s 30th birthday celebration today I stuck candles in the Osterlamm so it doubled as a birthday cake.
109. Woke at 4 am to see the moon shining on my face through my window. At 4 pm I was lying on my bed (because I’d woken too early…) and the sun was shining on my face from about the same point in the sky as the moon.
110. I was photographing 3 swans between 2 trees when another swan came hurtling past, running on the water.
111. A Doggy Day Care opposite my house closed down recently and today it opened as a Nepalese grocery store.
112. When I read that Putin wants to seal off the Asovstal steelworks in Mariupol, and ordered his troops to ‘Block off this industrial area so that a fly cannot pass through’, I immediately thought of a story I translated, ‘The Time of Serfdom’ by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, written in 1894, which includes this part about a cruel landlord who crushed a peasant revolt:
The next day, B. and his guard visited the village of the mutineers. The lancers surrounded it; they were instructed to let no man or woman pass, or even one head of cattle. ‘Do not let even one chicken get away,’ Vassili had ordered. They brought straw and faggots to every part of the village and set it on fire. Everything went up in flames, down to the last mean dwelling, and not one chicken got away. B. had kept his word, the revolt was repressed once and for all.
99. At Lake Burley Griffin today I saw 2 unusual things: this man and his children rowing a wooden boat, and the Beijing Garden across the water. I’d be the only person in this city who hasn’t ever been to it.
100. Today is the 100th day of this year.
101. Asked my Chinese student to talk about anything she has read in the news lately. She told me she’s been reading Chinese newspapers and believes Russia is right to bomb Ukraine.
102. Turned a corner at the shops and ran into an Easter Bunny in a full fluffy costume.
103. The National Library Bookshop, which had lost my translated books, sent me a message to say they found them. They’ve been missing for months.
104. My new car has a second rear-view mirror attached to the original mirror and today the sun shone on it until the rubber grips melted and it fell off and swung free while I was driving.
105. Read in Around the World in Eighty Days about waiters who wore shoes with swan-skin soles. I’d never heard of them and assumed it was actually swanskin, like pigskin or crocodile skin. But I’ve now learned it’s a soft flannel fabric (as well as the unplucked skin of a swan). I was looking at my local swans this afternoon, trying to imagine skinning them for waiters’ shoes. In the original French, the waiters wear ‘souliers à semelles de molleton’, which is simply a soft fabric. Why in English has someone imagined stepping softly on the skin of a swan?
When my father was in Egypt with the Australian army in 1941, he visited the pyramids and brought back several photos. I looked at the shape of the great pyramid in the photo here on the left where the smaller ones in the distance are dwarfs, and thought of the glass structure outside the Louvre which I visited in 2010. It even has a small pyramid beside it which makes the two Egyptian pyramids at the left of the older photo look the same height relative to the large one. But it’s a two-dimensional illusion, of course.
I turned my photo black and white to see if I could give it a 1940s look, but it lacks the soft blur of old photography, especially at the edges. The man captured at the very left of the Egyptian image is recognisable as human though no detail is visible, unlike the visitors to the Louvre who are possibly identifiable.