A Photographic Memory…?


Dawn, 1943, somewhere in Lincolnshire. As the cold light rapidly intensifies, a lone photographer moves quietly among the stained and battered olive drab B-17s parked around the periphery of the base. As he captures his images, Autocars tow F1 fuel trailers from bomber to bomber, while 500lb ordnance is busily loaded and boxes of .50 cal carried aboard to feed the voracious appetites of the heavy machine guns that will later that day punctuate the cacophony of battle, high over Europe, with their signature ‘thunk’, ‘thunk’, ‘thunk’.

With all 36 frames of the Kodacolour roll exposed, the photographer re-wound the film, popped the back of the camera and slipped the cassette into a rucksack pocket. There it stayed through the heat of summer, before finally being developed and printed.

Dawn, present day. Somewhere in the US. A modeller stands in their local hobby store, attention riveted on the pages of a book about B-17s. Within the pages were colour images from England, 1943; fine references all and highly valued as an aid in determining that thorny issue of the appearance of well weathered olive drab. Around the world, other modellers cheerfully absorbed all that the photographs conveyed and translated those observations into paint shades and weathering that adorned numerous scale models.


The two scenarios are hypothetical but nonetheless representative of an aspect of the modelling psyche that has quietly remained unqualified for as long as photographs have been utilised as key research material. In essence, the status of picture references within the modelling community is sacrosanct. The broad belief is that ‘the camera never lies’ and in many respects it doesn’t but there are certain considerations that I’ve routinely found aren’t overtly publicised or discussed in connection with those images – the end product of the photographic process.

Let’s shift sideways for a second. Modelling is a visual hobby. Every element of it; from standing in the hobby store, soaking up all that plastic loveliness, to the build, painting and finishing, display, shows, clubs, competitions, instructional DVDs and more – all universally reliant on the Mk.I eyeball. We trust in what our eyes communicate to us but do they really tell all? Is that image from 1943 something on which we can rely at face value? I don’t consider so and suggest we can, as a modelling collective, perhaps better do so with just a little extra background information.
Photography is a science as well as an art and while I’m not in any sense an ‘expert’ on either, I do have the benefit of a City & Guilds in General Professional Photography. Applying that knowledge and experience to our hypothetical 1943 scenario, it’s interesting to factor in some missing information.

First up, few references (if any) come with a verifiable list of the basic technical attributes extant at the point of exposure and subsequent development and printing – the camera used, lens fitted, shutter speed and aperture used, whether the film was ‘pushed’ (deliberately under exposed, then over-developed to compensate for declining light or the need for a higher shutter speed). Beyond this, (in the case of our 1943 hypothetical example) there is the delay in film development, while the film was subject to heat exposure in the rucksack (affecting the emulsion and consequently the latent images), whether development was correctly carried out (temperature, agitation and so forth). The potential list goes on to include whether filters were used (in black and white affecting tonal reproduction), the film type used and so forth – these are just some of the factors that affect the resulting image and what is recorded here is in no sense exhaustive.

Our film, having been developed and printed has other considerations to reveal. The olive drab on the B-17s in 1943 was photographed early in the day, when the light contains a higher proportion of the blue end of the spectrum, rendering the drab in ‘cold’ tones (the opposite is true towards evening, with red light predominating, which would provoke a ‘warm’ record of the drab. Between these two extremes is daylight at midday in the northern hemisphere – about 5,500 degrees Kelvin, a blend of light temperatures that might be described as ‘neutral’.

When light strikes a surface and appears to be ‘blue’ for example, it’s because that surface reflects blue light but absorbs the other colours of the spectrum. Our 1943 photographer observes the olive drab and his eyes signal his brain accordingly, resulting in the visual perception of ‘olive drab’ but his ‘perception’ will likely differ from that of you or I by simple virtue of differences in the biological signalling and interpretation equipment. This means that even direct observation of an object is not definitive but subject to interpretive variations.

Let’s take a step forward and say the 1943 negatives are now developed and extant. The emulsion in the film negative does not replicate per se, the colour ‘seen’ in real life by the camera, it imitates it. This colour interpretation varies from lens to lens among manufacturers, further diversifying the resulting colours recorded. We can call our negatives a ‘first generation interpretation’, subject to all the vagaries previously mentioned above.

The next stage is to produce prints and these are simple interpretations of the information captured in the negatives. We can call our prints a ‘second generation interpretation or ‘an interpretation of an interpretation of reality’. Prints are also subject to exposure issues and whether the prints were ‘dodged’ (deliberately under-exposed in places) and/or ‘burnt’ (deliberately over-exposed in places), all things affecting the resulting image. Beyond this, correct development is essential in avoiding changes to image density and as before, this kind of information is never carried forwards into the present day.

Our mythical prints now journey towards modern times but regrettably aren’t stored under certifiably archival conditions (few are) and so colours and tones fade and alter and in so doing, migrate further still from the reality of that early morning in 1943. Eventually, the prints find their way into the hands of a B-17 researcher who incorporates them into the pages of their forthcoming book, requiring a scanning process, which generates a printable file we can call a ‘third generation interpretation’ or ‘an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation of reality’.

The printers reproduce the images in each edition of the book using a suitable print process and give birth to a ‘fourth generation interpretation’ or (roll of drums and a deep breath) ‘an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation of reality’ until it reaches the eyes of that happy modeller in the US, who shows the book to a friend, who’s eyes and brain perceive the colour and tonal information differently, though neither are aware and neither will ever, as a result, speak of it. Unless they’re reading this…

All of that might suggest I’m out to terminally undermine the confidence expressed through the possession of photographic references – sincerely, I’m not but what I am advocating is a broader awareness of the weaknesses in claiming colours, tones or hues are ‘so’ because there is a photograph that appears to support the view. In tandem with that, I’m concentrating on ‘wet process’ photography here, rather than current digital technology, although that too is subject to broadly similar cautions. All of which, are gently offered as grounds to unfurrow that brow, chill, relax and apply the law of ‘TLAR’ (That Looks About Right).

So, the next time someone at the club or on-line or at a show tries to give your leash a tug over this, tell them about an early morning in 1943…unless you painted your ’17 pink…then you’re on yer own…


Bad Wolf


4 thoughts on “A Photographic Memory…?

  1. I have espoused this same attitude but in much less detail. Nicely done my friend.

  2. An argument I have been having for 30 years. Any “representation of reality” (which is what a photograph is) is just that. A representation. Not the real thing. Excellent monograph on the subject.

    • Cheers Tom. It’s a topic I’ve raised before and one that I guess will need repeating every so often. I was prompted to draft this after reading a blog piece elsewhere that raised the value of references but didn’t mention the realities inherent therein, that have an undeniable bearing on the same.

  3. That’s a really interesting read Steve and dead right too, the photograph tell all sorts of lies. Although not a professional photog like yourself I do still shoot 99.9% of my photo’s on 35mm, and as you know, they’re all different. I could shoot the same aircraft with Agfa, Kodak and Fuji – and get three different shades of the same colour!. (before you even throw in the processing).
    The build looks great, and that’s a nice Leica too – yours?

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