Apr 26 2012: Thirty-One Monochrome Photographs from The Boys’ Book of Radio, Television and Radar (Burke Publishing, 1957)

The Boys’ Book of Radio, Television and Radar was published in 1957 as an accessible schools-level guide to the latest technology in the field mapped by the book’s title, covering everything from missile guidance systems to astronomical installations, the BBC’s outside broadcast equipment to medical imaging techniques and the gigantic installations around the country that ensured broadcast radio could reach its audiences. Appearing just on the cusp of radio’s eclipse by television as the mass medium of main influence in the UK, it’s also fascinating to see how intensively collective provision of infrastructure for broadcast was at this point in time. Cameras small enough to use in real situations were barely yet available and, as can be seen in some of these photographs, the installation of a cameraman on Snowdon, say, or on the route of a procession, was a cumbersome operation requiring vast amounts of forward planning: a few years on and the use of portable cameras would become more widespread, resulting in both the Free Cinema movement in documentary film-making and the liberation of directors from elaborately choreographed working methods.

After the date of publication of this book, both the professional film camera and the amateur 8mm cine-camera would spread rapidly, revolutionising both the texture and the content of film and television themselves, allowing directors and non-professionals alike to document ever more of the world around them. On the one hand, this meant increasing quantities of footage from ordinary life, in a kind of unplanned technological extension of the purposes of Mass Observation, and on the other, allowed reporters to capture footage in conflict situations both at home and abroad. Within a decade, the Vietnam war would be shot and broadcast almost as it happened, while protests, government misdemeanours and unacceptable conditions in housing and factories could be exposed far more widely, the grainy footage giving far more imediate access to these conditions than, say, the engravings that had earlier illustrated the prose accounts of Mayhew, Dickens and Engels.

The downside, of course, is that the images also rapidly lost their force, and politically the tendency to blame the victims grew in influence through the 1970s and 80s, meaning that in 2012, as digital cameras and moving images shot on hand held mobile phones achieve a kind of ubiquity, the trust of viewers in images, their interpretation and distribution, has diminished to a point at which seeing something happen on film, TV or YouTube is no guarantee that it ever did, or isn’t being framed in some deeply misleading way: the footage of the Orgreave pickets during the 1984 Miners’ Strike, which was widely edited by mainstream media to make it appear the miners rather than police had instigated violence, is one famous example, while the slick but misleading campaign of KONY2012, recently circulated widely online, is another. Ultimately, the kinds of interpretative stories and framings first constructed by Victorian authors remain crucial: the key to effective communication of the issues and causes that explain the images we might otherwise dismiss as biased, propagandistic or simply too many and mutually contradictory to consider in any depth at all.

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