Old Photographs

Venice was a disappointment to my father. “I’m sorry” he wrote-how typical of him to preface a dismissal with an apology- before going on to damn the Byzantine style as “the last word in ornamental futility…technically superb but artistically decadent”. On the day he wrote that, he’d toured St. Mark’s and the Doges Palace, where he disapproved of the sumptuous ceilings in the upstairs apartments but warmed to the prisons down below, wishing their stone simplicity could be transferred upwards. My father’s ideal was Greece, which was the terminus of his Grand Tour. When he stopped off in Venice, he was on his way back from Greece to England- hence his sense of anti-climax.

This was at the end of the 1920s or the early 1930s and my father was travelling with a rich friend of his from Oxford. I don’t know what the basis was for their arrangement was, only that my father was a poor boy an d his friend paid for the trip. Perhaps it was simply a matter of friendship. Or perhaps my father was acting as one of those scholar-companions whose contemporary equivalents are American academics riding shotgun on educational cruises. Since my father had just graduated with a degree in classics, he would have been the right man for the job.

So there they were, two young Englishmen abroad for the first and, in my father’s case, the last time in their lives. Like everyone else who visits Venice, they drank tea at Florian’s, got lost, and complained about the high prices and mercenary habits of the locals.The rest of their time they spent seeking out and contemplating “views”. This seems like a strange idea to us, but satirists had been making fun of tourists as “view-collectors” since the late 19th century, only a few decades after organised tourism began to replace individual travel by the well-heeled (though not entirely, as my father’s trip with his friend shows). Tourists don’t collect views any more: they take photographs instead; and here too my father, with his passion for photography, was typical of his time.

Meanwhile, the traditional coinage of V for Views was still a vital part of the traveller’s lexicon along with the other lost consonants of B for Baedecker and C for Cook. It’s all in my father’s diary that he kept in pencil on plain white sheets of paper, now turned brown, in his neat, copyist’s hand. His entries are too brief- he thought them over-long- and sadly uninformative. He keeps wanting to digress into the personal, then pulls himself back to resume a flat chronicle of landscapes viewed, temples toured, meals eaten and train journeys taken. At one point, he fulminates against foreigners for not speaking English, foreign waiters for being lazy and/or histrionic and foreign customs officials for being foreign customs officials. Then he rounds on himself for turning “blank” and “witless” in the presence of foreign waiters and customs officials.

Elsewhere, he doesn’t hesitate to take his famous predecessors to task. Byron, he writes, was a disgrace for carving his name in Greek marbles (shades of the schoolmaster my father later became, taming classes of penknife-wielding barbarians intent on carving their initials into wooden desktops). Elgin must have been “informed with the American spirit of acquisition” when he stole the crown jewels among those same marbles. One craves these asides, they give my father’s narrative life, but he cuts himself off every time with a phrase like “now we must return to the story.”

Only he has no story to tell. In Greece, he says nothing about modern Greece, except that he despises it. In Italy, he says nothing about modern Italy, even though a few years later what was happening there and in Germany would overturn the lives of millions, my father’s among them. I get the sense that writing a diary was a duty for him, whether self-imposed or at his friend’s request. He was the official chronicler for their trip. He didn’t find this chore as irksome as some of the traveller’s duties, like buying presents for relatives back home, but he found it more painful than others, like discovering the best “views” and then choosing angles from which to photograph them. In his day, the 20th century technology of tourism was superimposed on the Romantic sensibility of the sublime without as yet replacing it. To put it another way, the external image on the developing paper hadn’t exorcised the internal image in the soul.

Photography rather than writing turned out to be my father’s metier. He went, he saw, he photographed. The diary records his anguish (there is no milder word for it) when he discovered the whole roll he took of the Acropolis had come out blank. Since he made this discovery in Venice, when it was too late to put right, it coloured his feelings for the Serene Republic. Back in England, he mounted prints in foolscap sizes in handsome albums with black pages and stiff, dark green covers with red tassels on their spines. As far as I can remember from my childhood, he never looked at any of them again.

Nor did he take another photograph as long as he lived. This was probably a wise decision since my father’s pictures, like his diary, lack human interest. In fact, they’re devoid of human beings altogether. In the 1930s, it was still possible, by the judicious selection of angles, to photograph world-famous tourist sites without a single stray figure invading the shot. There aren’t even any pictures of my father’s friend, unless a blurred head in a foreground represents him. And there are only a couple (taken by the friend?) of my father. He strikes the same pose in both of them. He is standing in his Oxford bags, with his neat black moustache, his left hand in his trouser pocket and his right hand, holding a cigarette, bent across his chest. In one frame, his hair is slicked back across his head; in the other, he is wearing a hat. He is leaning on the railing of a bridge with his back to the water. Judging from an overhanging house on the left and a feminine swelling in the top right-hand corner that could be a cupola, they were taken in Venice.

Let me try to unpack my father’s unrevealing photos with the aid of his undemonstrative diary. What’s remarkable in both cases is what’s absent- passion, emotion, activity, other people. Given that my father was English and given that, a few years before his trip to Greece and Italy, he had embarked on a far greater social odyssey, from his working-class family in the North of England to upper-class Oxford, you might expect a certain rigour and self-restraint on his part. More surprising is his lack of any sense of history. Most of his photos feature great Greek or Roman buildings, those historical supermodels, and he must have spent hours posing them to look as timeless as possible. Somehow one thinks of classicists as having a feeling for history, if only because they have to overfly so much of it to arrive at their chosen subject. But spanning millennia induces vertigo. Don’t look down becomes their motto.

The classics taught my father a sense of perfection, of precision, rather than a sense of history. If he loved the Greece of the golden age and deplored modern-day Greece, he saw the difference between the two as a moral difference rather than an historical one. His Greece was a snapshot of white marble on brown hills overlooking blue bays, bathed in the fabulous Greek light, then translated into the austerely ethical medium of black-and-white for safe-keeping. The result is that his Greece- and his Rome- are fragments of frozen time, Platonic forms trapped in a dish of chemicals and developing paper and available ever after for didactic purposes. As for the light, the aqua permanens of the whole process, it was, of course, the light of reason.

Which is why my father hated Venice. His comments about the Doges’ dungeons show that he understood stone. But he was baffled by the Venetian combination of stone and water (as well as by their taste for oriental luxury). He didn’t understand water because he didn’t understand natural light, which is an odd blind spot for an amateur snapper. To my father, Venice’s lagoon light was a pale reflection of the Greek original, darkened by ugliness, chaos, desire, history, all the unbeautiful things out of which beauty has to be made. The very qualities which lead its admirers to see Venice as Paradise- or rather, as that oxymoron, a real, a human Paradise- were the qualities my father most distrusted in life. As a classicist and an atheist he didn’t believe in Paradise, only in the alternative illusion of human perfectibility. He wasn’t very keen on art either, agreeing with Plato that it’s an irrational business that appeals to the worst in people.

Almost three quarters of a century have passed since my father made his trip. My father himself died over 20 years ago. But he was still very much alive when, at the age of 18 , I sailed away on my own Grand Tour. I went to America, which was my Greece and as far from my father’s as possible. Where he travelled with a friend, I was on my own. Where he was guided by his Oxford-approved light of reason, I went in search of romance. I found it. But while I was waiting, I took photographs. They were shots of skyscrapers, street corners, diners, motels, grain silos, gas stations, freeways, taken through the tinted windows of Greyhound buses rather than from a carriage on the Paris-Simplon-Venice-Belgrade-Athens express. There are no people in any of my pictures either. I stayed away for a year and when I returned to England, I sorted out my colour slides- technology had moved on by the 1960s- stacked them in their bright yellow Kodak boxes, like small cigar boxes, labelled each box neatly, and never looked at them again. Like my father before me, I also gave up photography for good.

Last year, when my mother became too frail and too confused to live alone any more and had to go into a home for old people, my father’s albums came into my possession. I take them down sometimes from the shelf in my office, run my palm over their mottled covers and leaf through their black, blotting-paper pages on which he mounted his browning prints on their stiff linen paper, like wallpaper. He didn’t write any captions. As a result, I don’t know where many of his photographs were taken or even exactly what they represent. I must have examined each one a dozen times or more before I noticed that there were people in some of them, after all. However skilled my father may have been with his camera angles (what sort of camera was it, I wonder? I didn’t find it among the clutter in my mother’s house and there is no one left to ask), the tricks that he was able to bring off with isolated monuments didn’t work as well in the middle of cities. In Paris or in Rome, even in Venice, he couldn’t avoid catching passers-by in his lens and there they remain to this day: children feeding pigeons in a piazza; priests in soutaines entering or leaving a barracks-like building; soldiers in fantastic braids and plumes; young couples dressed in 1930s clothes and driving 1930s cars. Once I noticed these figures posed like mannequins, I became obsessed with them, scrutinising them over and over with my magnifying glass- in search of what? I couldn’t say for sure. For the person who took the pictures? For my father himself, perhaps? Whatever (or whoever) I was looking for, I didn’t find it. The story my father’s photographs ought to tell lies forever out of reach, beyond the edges of the frame. In the end, I was only able to reach two conclusions about his carefully composed and painstakingly preserved images. Everybody in them, except for the children, is wearing a hat. And everybody in them- again with the possible exception of the children- is dead.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014