Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Trafalgar Square then and now

"Icon -n.  a person or thing that epitomises a certain set of qualities or values." Two icons here - Trafalgar Square, one of the must-see destinations for any tourist visiting London; and - at the personal level - a pair of photographs taken by my father before my birth. These photographs, elegantly framed, have always been in my parents' house. One notices them, and one doesn't - the English phrase 'part of the furniture' is apt. But they intrigue me - and so, at the end of a five-day visit to London, I set out to replicate them with a contemporary update of my father's vision. At the time, in the early years of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, he would have been here as a Polish political refugee in his early 30s, washed up on Albion's welcoming shores, armed with a camera, and in awe of the Capital of Empire.

His camera was a wedding anniversary gift from my mother, a Finetta-Werk Finetta IVD with interchangeable 43mm f4 Finetar lens. So then - here we are. North side of the square, the facade of the National Gallery... Note the cars - from the left, a pre-war Ford Model Y, a Ford Consul Mk I, and to the right, a Humber Hawk VI, in production from 1954 (which gives the photo a 'no-earlier-than' date). Click on the image to enlarge.

...And today. The roadway outside the National Gallery is now pedestrianised; the trees lining the road have been removed. As have the pigeons, once a familiar feature of the square, chased away by previous Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. Trying to copy my father's composition precisely, I move this way and that (with my Nikkor 18-55mm zoom set to emulate a 43mm lens on 35mm film) until I'm (nearly) there.

Below: a view of St Martin-in-the-Field, on the north-eastern side of the square, with South Africa House to the right, and a puissant fountain in the foreground. This picture won my father first prize in the annual photographic competition at his company.

Below: the same scene today? The composition isn't right. Only when comparing the two did I realise why. The plinth bearing an equestrian statue of George IV on the left side of the photo. Was it moved? Were I to replicate my father's composition, I've have had to move round to the left, and the plinth would have blocked the view of the church's facade. And the water pressure in the fountain is a shadow of its former self, while the overhanging tree in the foreground (close to Nelson's column itself), is gone.

We now live in an age of selfie-sticks and iPads, Boris bikes, hi-vi vests, roller blading, trainer-liners, hipster beards and smoothies. But behind the superficial ephemera of our lives is something profound and enduring. It's worth scraping away the contemporaneous flim-flam with the scalpel of consciousness, and learn to appreciate that which abides.

This time two years ago:
Reflection upon the City Car

This time three years ago:
Biblical sky

This time five years ago:
Travel broadens the spirit

This time eight years ago:
On the farm next door

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