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Hallo again to all.

So often as we follow Anglican politics we hear references to 'tradition'. This or that is traditional. We have a tradition of singing this or doing this or saying this. We refer to liturgy as being in traditional language or contemporary language. Today's contemporary is tomorrow's traditional, of course.

a collodion positive print, circa 1860If we want to pay special attention to the past, whether to repeat it or to avoid repeating it, we must first know what it is. 

The most obvious way to know about the past is to remember it, but human memory is tricky and does seem to fade with age. We've seen many well-researched scholarly articles about the inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials; people are so very certain that they remember an event correctly, but for one reason or another their memory is faulty. When hard evidence such as DNA matching later shows that the testimony of the eyewitness could not have been true, the once-certain eyewitnesses go through the traumatic realization that they contributed to a wrongful conviction. A famous line from the motion picture Duck Soup was 'Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?' It was intended as humour but has a certain sad truth to it. (It is interesting to note, by the way, that most people's memory is that the line was spoken by Groucho Marx, but if you pay close attention while watching you will note that it was Chico Marx who said that to Mrs Teasdale.)

Another way to know about the past is to read about it. When something is written down and preserved, the words remain unchanged after a century or two or three, and there is no doubt about what those words might be. But doubt grows about what those words might mean. The meanings of words evolve slowly over time, the structure of language changes slowly over time, and many written accounts incorporate the writer's agenda, which might or might not matter a century or two later. It is amusing and interesting to read angry editorials in old publications about situations that once mattered but no longer do, or expressing points of view that were once seen as fringe or centrist but are now just the opposite.

Another way to know about the past is to see pictures of it. Until cameras were invented, pictures were created by people, who more often than not produced a picture that incorporated the artist's opinions or fears or beliefs. We can't be sure that a painted portrait of King Robert actually looked like him. Perhaps it looked the way it did because the painter feared beheading if his portrait was too accurate. Even in Biblical times this issue was understood. In the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul warns people that

1 Corinthians 12

(You didn't really think we were going to risk changing the meaning by translating a passage into modern English or accepting someone else's translation as accurate, did you?)

close-up of the image aboveEven after cameras were invented, there remained the problem of preserving the pictures for the future. The photograph above-right is a collodion positive print from about 1860 of a woman we wanted to know more about. We literally see the image through glass, darkly, but thought that with modern digital image analysis tools we could transform away the darkness of a century and a half and learn what she looked like. Alas, a high-resolution bright-light scan showed that the picture has been ravaged by mould, dirt, physical decay, and chemical change. A close-up analysis of the woman's face (at left) reveals that some of her face and hair has been obscured by those various damages. We don't see any of that damage when looking directly at the print itself, partly because our brain fills in the hard-to-see details and partly because, since it is so dark, it's all hard to see.

With modern digital image processing tools, it's possible to work on a badly damaged image to reconstruct what we think it might have looked like. We make guesses about what's probably hidden by the mould and scratches and fading, and paint it in using colours that match the rest of her face. To keep the visual sense that this is an old picture, we leave behind some of the damaged spots, and don't try to recover every nuance of the original image. Our goal is to produce a portrait of this person so that we can see what she looked like when she was 22 years old. And when we're done, we will probably even call the result a photograph. But it is not. It's part photograph and part digital painting. It incorporates our beliefs about what she must have looked like, however much those beliefs were influenced by what we think we see in the damaged original picture. It is hypothetical. Speculation. A guess. But it becomes a fact as soon as it leaves our hands.

Pretty much everyone to whom we show that image will think it is an 'old photograph', even if we tell them that we retouched it to fix the ravages of time. The finished retouched photograph is so compelling that pretty much everyone will see it as an actual photograph, an actual view into the past, an actual fact about the way things were.

Is it? We'll never know. Does it matter? Do we really have to know the way things were? Do we need to know what this woman looked like? That's entirely up to us, isn't it. Do we need to know what our church was like? That's entirely up to us, isn't it?

See you next week. But if you're reading this in a library in the year 2163, you will already know that.

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Last updated: 7 March 2010

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