Tea and Brasso (Part two)

Boston Lodge b&w No 1.

My first attempts at photography in 1968 (see Part One) were in black and white, naturally enough. Colour photography was a bit of specialist pastime in those days and the materials were of rather poor quality. I had the use of the school darkroom and experienced the excitement of watching my prints slowly becoming visible in a tray of developer. I have always felt that b&w was a suitable medium for railway photography in the last days of steam. There was nothing glamourous at all in the subject matter and arguably very little that colour could add. The school darkroom was demolished very soon after I started using it, however, and thus ended my first stab at photography.

Boston Lodge b&w No 2.

My father continued togive me his old cameras as he upgraded to something more up-to-date. So I also became a Praktica user. By the early 1970’s, colour materials must have become easier to get hold of, and develop-and-print packages more affordable, because I never went into a darkroom again. It was colour negative all the way for me.  The film went to Boots, or, more likely, Max Spielmann for p&p. At that time  I was just messing around with cameras really, just having fun. I can remember a game I played with another student where we pursued each other around Nottingham city centre, each one trying to take photographs of the other without being seen.   Although I gradually took my photography more seriously it never occurred to me to use anything but colour. My philosophy was simple : we live in a colour world, so why photograph it in b&w? Most serious photographers, on the other hand, would have been using monochrome. One exception was Ernst Haas, whose crowning achievement (first published in 1971) was the Creation, produced entirely in colour.

Boston Lodge b&w No 3.

But, to coin a phrase, I digress. Most of the photographers that have inspired me (Ernst Haas, Paul Wakefield, Joe Cornish, Chris Gomersall, and others) have worked entirely in colour,  while one in particular only did so in her later years. I refer to Fay Godwin, who I have already mentioned in this blog a number of times – here, for example.  Her best known and most influential work was done in monochrome in the 1970’s and 80’s. I began to wonder if its particular power could have resulted from the use of monochrome. Perhaps the messages she was trying to convey came over more clearly without a sheen of colour to distract the mind/eye? So I began to think about doing b&w conversions of my own originals. Just for starters, I decided to convert some images from my recent visit to the Ffestiniog Railway at Boston Lodge. As I mentioned above I have always felt that b&w was ideal for steam railway photography.  Only those aged 60 or more will personally remember the last days of steam and the photographs from the era, which were inevitably monochrome. It could be that there is an element of nostalgia involved but I suspect it is more than that.

Boston Lodge b&w No4

Last weekend I was up in north Wales and frustrated yet again by some dismal (but very typical) August weather.  On a still and humid Sunday morning there were patches of mid-level cloud wrapping themselves around hilltops and mountain-sides. The landscape photographer might take some spectacular images if the sun broke through a broken layer of high level cloud. The latter looked thinner at the coast so I headed down to the Cob at Porthmadog; the view to Snowdon from its southern end is an iconic one.  Long distance visibility from there was limited, unfortunately, but just a few meters away in the other direction lay Boston Lodge, and it looked stunning! As the railwaymen prepared the engines for the new day’s work I had another short session photographing them “contre-jour” before the sun disappeared completely.

 

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Tea and brasso.

Early morning at Boston Lodge.

I first picked up a camera as a schoolboy. My father gave me his old rangefinder after he bought himself his first Praktica.  He had introduced me to trainspotting a few years earlier and 1968 saw the dying days of steam power on main-line railways in Britain. I spent as much time as I could that summer travelling around northern England to see and photograph the last steam engines still in operation.  On the last day of steam – 15th August if I remember correctly – I officially gave up trainspotting and put my Locoshed book away for the last time. With the photographic vision and skills I now have how I wish that I could travel back in time to those days when grimy and unloved steam engines could still be found.

I have since then retained a broad interest in railways, and Wales has an abundance of preserved narrow-gauge lines. In fact, Porthmadog is the hub of quite a narrow-guage steam network with the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland lines terminating there. Last week I decided I was man enough to do some railway photography again: man enough because I needed to overcome my concerns about being seen as a train nerd. So one evening recently I wandered in to the Boston Lodge works/engine shed of the Ffestiniog Railway as one of the last engines of the day was being “put to bed”.  I gingerly approached the railwaymen to enquire about getting access the following morning, and was told that I would need to speak to the Works Supervisor who would be on duty from 7 a.m. I was there at half-past seven, only to find no-one in the office but railwaymen (and women) preparing several engines for the day’s duties. I couldn’t help noticing several people polishing the engines furiously – something that you would never have seen on British Rail in the 1960’s.

Once I did find someone to report in to I was surprised at how relaxed the regime was for visitors – “Oh just sign in, and mind where you’re putting your feet” I was told. Very refreshingly there was no  “elf’n safety” paranoia here. I cautiously began exploring the sheds and sidings. If you’re interested in steam engines you will know this already but the first job in the morning is to light the fire. Once this is done the engine is driven gently out into the open for the fire to take hold and steam pressure to build up, and for more polishing to be done. Everyone had a tin of Brasso to hand, and there was a cupboard full of the stuff inside the shed. Mugs of tea were also well in evidence. In the midst of a downpour, a swallow chased a butterfly in the grime and smoke of the engine shed.

I was casually looking into the cab of one of the engines when the fireman leapt in through the opposite door. Although dressed in grimy dark blue overalls, like most of the men, this was clearly a woman. I asked what the attraction was for her in firing a steam engine – “it’s just something completely different to what I normally do” she said. And what was that? “Oh, I’m a teaching assistant in a school for autistic children”.  She paused for a few seconds. ” Although, come to think of it, compared to some of the volunteers we get here, there isn’t actually that much difference.” Train nerds, you see. I saw her later, at lunchtime, having worked all morning, on her second round trip of the day. Her teeth gleamed white from a face caked in sweat and coal dust. “One of the best fireman on the railway”, said the driver.

Here’s one I prepared earlier – Taking on water at Tan-y-bwlch station

The main attraction at Boston Lodge was, of course, the presence of the engines. The railway staff must have been accustomed to railway photographers, though, because they seemed quite unselfconscious subjects themselves.  It probably helped to have a chat: one driver – in real life an English teacher at a school in Switzerland – was back at the Ffestiniog for his thirty-second year, while another man told me proudly that it was his fourty-ninth year as a fireman. One pointed out an osprey hovering over the Glaslyn river as it hunted for fish to take back to its family a few miles away. I found I was often able to include them and in fact, some human interest really seemed to lift the images. The results were far from traditional “steam engine at 45 degrees”and one could say were more social documentary in nature. I have a feeling there is more to be done on the Ffestiniog.

 

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