It is strange to watch colour film from seventy years ago. The discovery of the film in a London attic reported by the BBC reveals an experience which becomes starkly real when revealed in colour. Having had a grandfather who was in the National Fire Service in London through the Blitz, there is a poignancy in watching the images of desperate struggles against spreading flames.
The 1940 film footage predates colour television in England by some twenty-seven years. It was 1967 before programmes could be watched on the huge televisions of the time; the cost of which put them far beyond the reach of most ordinary people. Colour television was something visible through the windows of the local electrical shop, not something in your front room.
We still had a black and white portable as our only television until November 1990, I remember precisely because it was a month after our son was born. Admittedly, monochrome was a bit passé by then and the television licence people seemed to express increasing suspicion in their correspondence each year, the black and white licence being considerably cheaper than the colour.
My late mother-in-law was very possessive of her black and white portable set. An avid fan of snooker, she would have been glued to the set over the past weeks watching the world championship that came to a conclusion on Monday evening. Once it was ten o’clock, she would switch off the colour set in her living room and retire to bed where the match would have been followed in monochrome. The precise shades of grey would tell her the difference between the green ball worth three points and the brown ball worth four.
Black and white still seems the preferred medium of many photographers; it has qualities, a capturing of nuances that polychrome pictures somehow miss. Monochrome pictures can transform scenes from being mundane to being artistic; there is not the starkness, not the cold reality conveyed by full colour. A universe in colour is much more uncontrollable, much more anarchic, than one in shades of grey; there is no hiding unpleasantness, no rendering colours of harshness in shades of grey.
In a week when someone dancing on the grave of a former taoiseach has aroused controversy, a book of photographic portraits by Snowden, bought back in the ‘80s, conveys the difference between the nuanced and the artistic on one hand and the brash and opulent on the other. Photographing Garret Fitzgerald and Charles Haughey, the two dominant politicians in Ireland of the 1980s, Snowden portrays one in black and white and one in colour, even a cursory knowledge of Irish politics would tell you who appears in colour!