Wilfred Thesiger: A Vanished World

August 10, 2014

510M2VYTYZL._AA160_Not a read, but a look: this is a book of some of Thesiger’s photographs, from many of the places he explored and of the people he lived with. I found it interesting, as an amateur photographer myself, and also as a relic of the past to which Thesiger was so attached.

All the photos are black and white, which is fine, though adds a dated quality per se: we are so unused to monochrome images nowadays, either still or moving. And there is a serious difference from colour images, it seems to me: Thesiger’s photographs of people – portraits – are incredibly sharp and the tones and detail are marvellous. I’m sure the same amount of actual data is captured in a colour image, but is somehow more effective, more striking in black and white (or, is this just us romanticising the exotic?).  Clearly, the portraits of people from many lands were easy to take: they are almost all posed, either individual or small group, in a way that photos are not, and do not need to be, nowadays; the subjects are willing and the light is almost invariably very good. There’s an immense amount of detail in things like the weave and colour tones of clothing and ornaments. I think it would have been extremely difficult to take ‘spontaneous’ shots in those places and at that time.

It’s rather different with views and panoramas: these tend to be rather grainy, the images slightly vague and diffuse; this, in itself, suggests the past. Particularly with the desert photographs, there’s an uncanniness, an eeriness. Certainly, I find colour pictures taken more recently are able to give a better impression of such places.

I’m glad that Thesiger took all these photographs of places and people: it’s an impressive record of what the title suggests, a vanished world. If you have read any of his books, then you will enjoy the images here.

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