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Is there an aura of the era? The temporal quality of photography and visual media.

Is there an aura of 1965? Of 1973? Of 1982? Or 1932? Not just a fashion look, or a hair style or design of automobile or building, but an appearance, an atmosphere an aura things appear to have when we replay memories in our mind's eye, watch old films or look at old photographs. I believe there is and that the power of this time related visual aura is something we should learn to appreciate. A lot of it has to do with visual media, but there's something indescribable there too, something mysterious.

nostalgic 1970s style portrait photo of a woman



See definition of aura on www.dictionary.com

Why do films and photographs from a certain time have a certain appearance, such that it's possible to guess quite accurately when the film or photo dates from? In addition to the obvious clues like clothes and hair styles, there's the issue of image recording technology. Cameras and films from a certain era have a subtle uniqueness. It changes with time. Technology changes, the image changes. Sharpness and clarity may improve and they may actually deteriorate.

For example, black and white films of the fifties and sixties have a sharpness that's lacking in color films made just a few years later. When color arrived in the late sixties and became widespread in the 70's it appeared wonderful at the time, but its softness and tonal bias look less than accurate to our eyes today. But it had a special visual quality we now appreciate, for example in the early promotional films of the Beatles. The popularity of the soft focus filter in the 70's also added to the look of the time. In the eighties the onset of video technology and the increasing possibilities of video editing gave an exciting new televisual feel to the decade which was taken up by pop acts and film makers.

Music influences our visual perception giving it a time-limited quality and texture, whether the sound track to a film or the music that forms the background to our lives. Replaying music can conjure up visual impressions of a certain time.

Cameras and films of 150 years ago gave a certain look to the Victorian world, to our eyes a rather stilted one due to the long exposure times. The faster films of 100 years ago brought greater spontaneity to still photos and made moving images possible. Film and photo techniques of the 1930's seemed ground-breaking at the time and today can appear to have a kind of retro-modernity.

But beyond fashion and camera technology, I believe there's an extra element, an invisible ethereal quality that would give a different look to a picture taken 50 years ago with the same camera as compared to one taken with the same camera and film today. It's a look of... 1954 or 1947 or 1992. Is there a look of 2004? There probably is but we can't see it yet. I use a 50 year old camera loaded with a similar type of film to that used 50 years ago - the Stereo Realist and Kodachrome film. Is it possible to reproduce a look of a chosen year in the past, and is it wise to try to recreate it?

Maybe or maybe not. But for the moment it's an aura I can recapture in my childhood memories of looking through the windows of the bus at the city streets, walking in the park or looking out from trains, and one that I can see in films such as 'Bunny Lake Is Missing' and 'Rosemary's Baby' or tv shows such as 'The Avengers'. My perceptions of 1965 and the films and programmes of that year have a special significance for me.

The aura of past eras is something I enjoy trying to capture in my photographs, but in years to come, my new, recent and soon-to-be-taken photographs will eventually take on the aura of a certain nostalgic time, an old-fashioned era long forgotten, that's to say, the era we're living in right now.

Any comments? Can you shed any light on any of these issues? Is there a year or era you think had a special aura or quality? I would love to hear from you.

Message received from Miss G Morgan

I find the subject you have addressed in your article very interesting. I do feel that there is a very strong aura which accompanies each era. I seem to be similar in some ways to people in ages past and often expect people to behave in certain ways or to see certain expressions on their faces that you never seem to encounter these days.

I doubt I have a similar aura though, as the fact I was brought up in this generation will have had so much effect on me. When I see a film made recently set in an era gone by I have often felt disappointed when the actors and actresses have not really taken on the feel of characters from the time in which the film is set.

I recently watched the films by Mitchell and Kenyon which they showed on the television and people really did look different. There was a different feel about everything. I am often surprised how much things change, how people can become so different in just a generation or two. There is something about the Victorian era which I love, and also the 1950s, but I do not like the aura of the era in which we are living now. When I look at pictures of my mother in her childhood, I find not just the way she was dressed or the way her hair was done but the whole atmosphere of everyone and everything in the picture somehow beautiful, whereas when I look at pictures of my own childhood, I find that beauty isn't there.

There was something much more innocent, beautiful and romantic in certain eras past and I fear that a similar aura may never surround us again as we are living in an age of lost innocence, lost beauty and lost romance - the exact opposite. There is something of worldiness in the age in which we are living now, an age of technology. An age where children are not able to be childlike for very long, where women are masculine and plain, men are effeminate, and authority is lacking. An age where everything seems to have lost its magic, mystery and reverence and nothing is sacred. Society somehow changes, sparked by certain things, and I think the general feel of the time is what creates the aura.

I personally think technology, useful as it is, and feminism have been two destructive influences which have shaped our society. I would so much like to recreate something of the lost auras around myself and family but it seems to be something which is to a great extent out of the individual's control.

G Morgan

I think that many people today have similar feelings to you. We have many practical benefits today, but we have lost something that used to be there. I can't quite define it, but it was something in the air. I believe anyone born after 1970 will not have experienced it. To accompany your message I've published an old family photo of my mother, my sister and myself, taken in 1963. This photo definitely captures an aura of the era. Thank you very much indeed for your contribution.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2004-06-30

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