TRUE STORIES — It’s all there in black and white

J.T. Knoll
West End Gang, Franklin, Kansas

Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive. – Elliott Erwitt

I love old black and white photographs; especially ones of un-posed crowd scenes in which I can pick out groups and individuals amid the action. Or maybe spy someone looking on from a second story window.

Not to mention sitting on the very top of a building, like the youngsters atop the Colonial Theatre in a 1957 photo I have of the K.S.T.C. homecoming parade looking north from 4th and Broadway.

In this one, there’s also gone-to-the-grave store fronts, like Harry’s Hat Shop and Jones Store, the 50s clothing styles (especially men’s hats), the stopped action of the trumpet players and distant marching majorettes, and the old split window, flatbed trucks with real chrome bumpers and round headlights chugging up Broadway.

As indicated in the opening quote above, I find them more than descriptive. Which is to say, I easily put myself into the scene — hear the band and snippets of conversation in the crowd, feel from the sidelines the mood of the coeds on the floats, savor the smell of pancakes wafting out the door of Harry’s Café as a patron exits.

A spontaneous moment in time captured in black and white. An image stripped of color that leaves a completely different set of ways to interpret what I see than an image presented in full color.

As for posed photographs, I’m no photo historian but it seems to me over the years, posing as changed quite a lot.

The first dauguerreotype photographs were taken in the mid-1800s — which, by looking at the old photos, seems to be before smiles were even invented. Not even a hint of one can be seen in the rigid-bodied adults and children pictured. I suppose this could have been partly because it required a longer exposure time.

Or was it because it was expensive studio time and quite possibly the only photograph you’d ever have taken of yourself or your family? Serious business indeed.

Things lightened up in the early 1900s when Eastman Kodak came out with their inexpensive box camera (the Brownie) and the ‘snapshot’ was born. This seemed especially true in outdoor photos, many of which revealed not only posing with smiles but also moments of spontaneous fun and flirtation! Not as much concern about what the developed photo would look like.

Before long criminals got at taste of it – posing for mug shots; one photo straight on and one side view to help in identifying them should they be involved in another crime or jailbreak.

As time went on ‘striking a pose’ came to be more prominent in photographs as professional photographers started shooting models and movie stars from ‘their best side.’ The classic ‘over the shoulder’ pose can still be seen today. (My dog, Arlo, even does it.)

From time to time I like to look at my old black and white ’67 yearbook photos, which, like most all yearbooks, follow standard posing formula: the senior studio shots (by Bill Miller in our case) with the boys in coat and tie looking left or right, the girls in lacey black drape looking left or right and heads tilted slightly up; then head shots of the rest of the students all the way down to kindergarten.

Still, as I said earlier, my favorites are casual, black and white snapshots in which I can get immersed in the people, the story, the scene.

Phyllis Liposek Bitner provided the accompanying 1930s photo of Franklin’s ‘West End Gang’ — likely taken with a Brownie box camera — that falls into this category. I used it for last year’s music exhibit at the Miners’ Hall Museum.

Take a slow, black and white look at the crew of teenagers and twenty-somethings standing or sitting on the fender and running board of the old roadster, notice the saxophone and accordion, and let your imagination do the rest.

Which is to say, put yourself into the scene — hear the snippets of conversation, feel the mood of the guys and dolls and savor the sound of the rollicking sax and accordion at the dance they’re headed off to at Nick’s Place or the Club Trocadero just up the road. Maybe join them there and dance headlong and happy a polka around the hardwood floor.

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net