Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Shooting The Past on dvd

I love black and white photos, especially old ones of long-gone scenes, or famous personalities of their day. I could look at the one we see most often of Virginia Woolf forever.

They give me a feeling inside that isn't easily described. It is part longing, part nostalgia for another time, part wonder, part deep curiosity. But, though I have thrilled to them for ages, and they are truly my favorite art form, I have, perhaps surprisingly, never, ever thought of "collections" of these pictures. If I had stopped and considered, I think I would have realized that they must be collected and housed somewhere. They aren't just scattered individually throughout the world (though I'm sure some are).

This television production came as a complete, complete surprise to me. I have never seen anything like it in my life. And I have Lesley to thank.

I had vaguely heard of this when it was on PBS a few years back, but it was just a name in my mind along with the image of the actor, Timothy Spall. When I read about it on her blog, I put it in the Netflix queue, and just watched it a few days back. It is on two dvds, and there were moments in the first one that floored me, and yet sometimes I wondered what on earth was going on. But there was no way we wouldn't continue, and the second one clears up every mystery in the most interesting way imaginable. What a story, what an idea; an American businessman has bought an old English house in which he is going to start an innovative business school. The only snag is that it isn't empty. It houses a most extraordinary collection of photographs and gives employment to the most fascinatingly eccentric collection of people. They are old and young, men and women, all different types but drawn to these pictures. The photographs actually come from the Hulton Getty picture collection, and the viewer gets to see many, many of them throughout the film. Now, apparently the businessman has had contact with one of the people, telling him that the pictures must be taken away by a certain time. But the people know nothing of this, and when the business school folks arrive, ready to do their renovation work, there isn't time left to dispose of the collection in a way to keep it all together. The film goes on to show us, through use of the very photographs, how this situation is resolved.

There are a couple examples of supremely wonderful storytelling, using the old black and whites. In one, we see a little girl in 1930s Germany whose father photographed her over and over again with such an artistic and loving eye. Lindsay Duncan, who plays one of the caretakers of the collection, tells the whole story of this Jewish child's life as she shows us the pictures.

It was an incredible experience to see and hear this, to watch the face of the storyteller and the wonder of the fact that these photos exist. They weren't necessarily all in the same place, but were found by the caretakers and from them a true story is told.

The movie progresses in a beautifully slow and quiet way. The viewer becomes totally absorbed in these people and these pictures. Both Tom and I loved it. If you do watch it, please see the extras, for they continue the story a bit, and show us more of the wonderful old pictures.


  1. Nan,
    Thanks for this wonderful recommendation. I'll add it to my queue right away! And thanks for visiting my blog. Yours is just my cup of tea and I will visit often.

    Patrice in Tacoma, WA

  2. Nan, I hadn't heard of this and it sounds beautiful. I'm on a nostaglia trip just now and spent quite some time yesterday looking at my parents' photo album - not of famous people but still pictures into a world long gone.

  3. Wow what an intriguing sounding show. It sounds like something I would absolutely love, especially since I just finished going through hundreds of old photos from my grandmother's house. Sadly, we cancelled our Netflix account, but perhaps the library will have it. One can hope anyway.

  4. This sounds lovely. Adding it to my queue, too. Thanks, Nan!

  5. Thanks Patrice, for stopping by. I was thinking of posting a link to yours so people could see those amazing swifts!

    Margaret, the bulk of the photos in the show were not famous folks. If you go to the Hulton Getty site the first one is of a dog holding onto a little boy's pants so he doesn't fall in the water. The program focuses on both the famous and unknown in its exploration of the stories photos tell. My gosh, it is so good. I've got some old b&w pictures from my parents' childhoods and some old relatives I never even knew. There's just something so real about those pictures.

    Grace, are you going through them to distribute them among family members? Or are you keeping them all?

    Les, I'm quite sure you and Rod will like it. Tom was awed by it.

  6. Thanks for mentioning my little nudge towards Shooting the Past, Nan! Have you seen 'Perfect Strangers' yet, or any of Stephen Poliakoff's other work? Sorry I've been so long in replying, I'm sick again with gastric flu. Looks like I will miss my monthly antiques auction trip tomorrow, which is very disappointing. I had my eye on a few things in the catalogue. Hope you had a good weekend!

  7. Nan, my husband and I watched part one and two of this movie last night. We are looking forward to receiving the second disc from Netflix to find out the conclusion. I so admire the character Marilyn as she tries to the solve the problem but also tries very hard to stay true to herself. The others on the collection staff are trying so hard to come up with ways for her to fetch a new owner of the collection but Marilyn always comes back to her inner truth. The actress does such a good job on showing physically how she struggles listening and then acting on her gut feeling.

  8. Catherine Mary, I'm so glad you are watching it, and I'm pleased you took the time to tell me. You're so right about Marilyn.
    Lesley, we have Perfect Strangers at home now.


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