the penultimate WORD

Series 2008 - October


The Irvine Tartan  My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican











Every thing looks worse in black and white…

They give us those nice bright colours
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day...     

Paul Simon



Celluloid influenced my world view early in life.

That discovery was waiting for me in a large cardboard box I found in my attic recently.  Crumpled and dried from age and the extremes of heat and humidity, the box had no distinctive markings.  Tied with heavy twine, I picked the box up, placed it in front of me and untied the knot.  It had not been untied for over forty years.

Inside I discovered photo albums and booklets of prints and envelopes of negatives.  The albums had photographs fixed to black pages with corners popular in an earlier time.  Black corners had glue on the back so that moistened and positioned, the views could then be removed or replaced.  Some had disappeared. 

My Dad had taken most of the pictures.  Sometimes strangers must have taken the pictures because my parents are in views that show them holding me… bundled up in winter and being pushed along in a baby carriage in the summer.

The pictures were not in any particular order, but booklets of developed rolls of film held together sometimes with twine and sometimes with metal clips, captured moments of history I had long forgotten.

All of the pictures were in black and white and had been taken with a box camera.

When I was about ten I remember being given a camera for my birthday.  It was an Agfa camera and took 120 film. I can recall my Dad explaining to me how to load the film.  He rehearsed the procedure two or three times and then we would get under a blanket, the back of the camera removed and the new roll of film ready to load.  The lights in the room would be turned off and my small hands worked feverishly to begin to unroll the film and thread it onto the take-up spool without loosening the roll and letting light expose the film.

The camera optics were simple, and the image quality was fairly sharp. The large negative size was a definite plus and I learned a lot about how to compose a picture.  I had an eye for spatial relationships.  Few people had either their head or their feet cut off.

I don’t know what the shutter speed was, nor the lens aperture, as technical information was beyond me. The camera had a flash unit, and I can remember how the flash bulbs burned hot!

For almost a decade my photography was limited to black and white exposures.  Thanksgiving and Christmas for all their colour, were recorded on celluloid in back and white.  The Woodstock Jamboree was in black and white as were the spring flowers as they appeared and the family picnics.  I not only composed my photographs in black and white, I saw through eyes that viewed the world in black and white.

It was later, much later, that I learned that “Every thing looks worse in black and white…” than it does in colour.  A new world lay ahead of me when I began to realize that film was available in Kodachrome and that I could take prints as well as slides with my well-traveled camera!  My world-view was supplanted by the Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester and I have to tell you, it has continued to shake my world-view from that time since.

We all begin as celluloid film, metaphorically speaking and with the least sophistication, view a world with a shallow depth of field and little care for either shutter speed or aperture setting.  Those qualities came later for me, much later to me.  I am glad they did.  I might never have learned how they would contribute to new the world-view to which I was exposing myself.

For we are no more than that – unexposed film engaging the world around us and the people in it.  Beyond the colours so obvious in the autumn, our exposure to life “gives us those nice bright colors / They give us the greens of summers / Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day…”  Not simply the oranges of pumpkins and reds and yellows of falling leaves, but the lives around us filled with hopes and trials – failures as well as successes.  In black and white our world-view is more exclusive and cold, judgmental and damning.  But in colour!  In colour we begin to see the wholeness of a Narnia creation redeemed in which we find ourselves, ready for a harvest!



Copyright © 2008 James T. Irvine


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Bar photo: The Canon at the Calgary Zoo by Mary Byrne

Midi: Kodachrome by Paul Simon


 Series 2008

Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton