Rick Poynor | Exposure

Exposure: Woman Mailing a Letter by Clifton R. Adams

A Young Woman Mails a Letter at the Pillar Box by Clifton R. Adams, Oxford, England, 1928
National Geographic Creative/Corbis

No matter how many times I see very old photographs in color, such scenes never cease to startle. Something distant—in this case, a quiet street in provincial England in 1928—is abruptly yanked out of the cellar of time and brought into the light for inspection. Our collective photographic memory of the early 20th century was fabricated from mainly black-and-white evidence. Absence of color came to signify “remote in time,” and even though colors were just as bright in 1915 as now, it was impossible not to imagine early modern history through a persistent monochrome veil.

In Europe, throughout the 1980s, it was still routine to print many photos in black and white (the U.S. was ahead in color). Not until color printing became standard in the 1990s did publishing start to show us that our grandparents’ chromatically drained world could be glimpsed in spectacularly real color, after all, thanks to the Autochrome process, used from 1907 until the advent of Kodachrome in 1935. (The same belated discovery of color happened with early film.) Today, the Internet adores vintage color photos. Viewers who grew up in the age of Retronaut, where I chanced upon this postal scene, may be a little more inclined to take such images for granted, though many clearly relish their wonder. 

Clifton R. Adams (1890–1934), a staff photographer at National Geographic magazine, took the picture in Oxford on a visit to England. His photograph, like others he made, has an air of almost anthropological enchantment, like an excited ethnographer documenting a tribal ritual: here we see a young native woman depositing a letter in a curious red cylinder! Based on a design introduced in 1879, the Royal Mail’s Type B King Edward VII pillar box—note the royal cypher on the door—became a national emblem. Adams returned to the U.S. with several similar shots of ordinary English folk entrusting their missives to the mail.

If the picture has a slight stiffness we wouldn’t expect today, it’s for the familiar reason that the subject had to hold her pose for a lengthy exposure to avoid blurring. Although the colors appear to be remarkably accurate, which isn’t always the case with Autochrome, the image composed of tiny red, green and blue grains has a delicate pointillist haze, particularly in the background. The streets haven’t changed so much in the quainter parts of Britain, and the woman in the stylish blue coat and cloche hat looks close enough—alive enough—to greet. Then the date of the picture comes back. This moment slipped by a lifetime ago and she is no longer here.

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Posted in: Exposure, History, Photography, Social Good

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