Old Photographs

Not that old, but I’ve recently been spending a lot of time scanning the best of my old negatives from my first years in photography. So far I’m up to around the middle of 1983, and don’t seem to have covered more than a very small fraction of my work – another 20 busy years of film to scan.

Of course I’m trying to be very selective in what I scan, and often there are contact sheets where nothing catches my interest, but on others I’m discovering things I’ve never really noticed before. Here’s one of them:

© 1983, Peter Marshall

You’ll have to take my word that it looks much better when you see it filling the screen and you can see clearly the rods of rain and the pock covered surface of the Lea Navigation where the rain is pounding into it, along with the rather more brooding rain soaked sky and the glistening of the nettles and other weeds alongside the path that this is a picture redolent with atmosphere.  I don’t remember anything about actually taking it, but looking at it I can feel and hear the rain (I do hope I had an umbrella) and smell the wet earth and foliage. In several respects, not least the pylons, it’s a very typical scene from this part of the Lea at that time.

It’s a picture I don’t remember printing before, though probably I did at the time, but it certainly isn’t one that I’ve shown from the lengthy project I carried out on the Lea Valley in the early 80s, revisiting it again in the nineties and more recently to take more work, much of which is in my Lea Valley web site, though this isn’t among them yet, though perhaps next time I update the site I’ll add it.

Generally I am finding that my selection now is a little different from that which I made at the time, with a whole area of work which I now have much less interest in. These are what I might call the more ‘arty’ pictures, where what attracted me were the formal qualities of the scene, perhaps in the water flowing over the edge of a weir or the patterns of light and shade on a wall. Now I want to make use of those formal elements in making a picture about something rather than making them the subject of the picture, I want to see a good picture of the weir or the building the wall was a part of.

Even bad pictures can have some interest. Another from the same year shows an industrial building on Carpenters Road – a road that has now disappeared under the Olympic site.  I’ve photographed it from the other side of the road and have obviously tried very hard (and very nearly successfully) to keep the verticals upright, at the expense of covering nearly half the picture with an empty roadway.

© 1983, Peter Marshall

It certainly is not a great picture, but not without interest, and probably what particularly interested me were the doorway and the window above and just to the right. Above the window are the dates 1870 and 1898 and above the door the device reads ‘ABR & Co Ltd’

A little searching in ‘British History Online’ after Google had drawn a blank found the name of the company as ‘A. Boake, Roberts & Co., manufacturer of perfumery and flavour chemicals’, and armed with that I was able to find more about them than anyone sensible would want to know.

The company is said to have been founded in 1869 by Arthur Boake, an Irishman from Dublin, to produce brewing chemicals, and produced a product to clarify wines that sold well across Europe. In the 1890s it branched out into various flavouring essences and essential oils and the company which had become a partnership with Francis George Adair Roberts in 1876 was incorporated as  A. Boake, Roberts and Co. Ltd in 1897.  The 1898 on its frontage is probably when it moved to this new factory on Carpenters Road.

The company prospered, and in the 1940s and 50s produced a wide range of chemicals from factories in  Walthamstow, Letchworth, Rainham and Widne, joining with two other companies in 1966 as Bush Boake Allen, part of Albright & Wilson Ltd. It was a huge company worldwide, but in 2000 it was acquired by IFF to create “world’s largest flavor and fragrance company.”

Those who lived or worked near the factory, which closed a few years before I took my picture, still remember the various smells it produced, notably a powerful odour of oil of wintergreen.

Photographs, even those like this that have little interest pictorially can be a useful historical record. At the time I think I saw it as a failure because I didn’t have the equipment to record the building more satisfactorily in terms of architectural photography. Taking pictures of buildings like this, before verticals and horizontals could be corrected digitally, required a camera with movements, which were slow to use. I had a couple of 4×5 cameras, a studio monorail and a more portable but less flexible MPP, both of which were too heavy to take on the lengthy walks I was making to take photographs. What I lusted after for use on my 35mm camera was a shift lens – a lens with movements built in, but for me these were impossibly expensive.

But not long afterwards I came across one second-hand in a camera shop in Hull. Even second-hand it cost almost a couple of months wages, but I didn’t hesitate, and it became my most-used lens for the next 25 or so years.

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