On 1st July 1967 the world changed. Or at least it did for a tiny pocket of citizens in the United Kingdom. This revolution would soon spread to thousands more. And in time, the entire planet. But this defining moment would not be populated by political leaders, scientists, or even kings or queens of state. It would be delivered from the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. And concern a very British activity - tennis.
The defining moment was a four-hour experimental colour TV transmission, broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation; brought forward from its original December date, so that the BBC could claim to be the first colour broadcaster in Europe. The channel was BBC2, the event the Wimbledon Championships. Months later, on 2nd December, the spectacle of ‘colour television’ was officially launched. Two weeks on, BBC1 would also share this phenomenon.
In 1967, the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Final was won by Australian John Newcombe. American Billie Jean King would take the women’s title. And as is tradition, Royalty were present. So too sports photographer Gerry Cranham.
A torch-bearer in the 1948 Olympics, Cranham has been recognised as one of the pioneers of reportage sports journalism. He has been widely published across sports journals, with an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in 1971. From humble beginnings, his fastidious, and on occasion experimental work ethic would result in an unrivalled portfolio of action moments. His maverick approach to sports photography was driven by a hunger to simply ‘put food on the table’. Yet this method, born out of necessity, made him push boundaries, in the process creating images of rarified beauty and social significance. This is exemplified by Cranham’s surreal fish-eye photograph taken from high up in the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral, during the funeral service of Winston Churchill.
Ironically, the precious footage of the BBC’s first colour broadcast no longer exists. Whereas Cranham’s Kodachrome colour negatives do. His place in the pantheon of sports journalism now sealed - as a skilled opportunist, able to capture a plethora of defining moments, covering a multitude of sports, and a veritable who’s who of the famous and infamous icons of the twentieth century.
This kaleidoscopic archive of colour negatives forms the foundation for Straffon’s ‘Chroma’ series. Across twenty-one compositions, Straffon reinterprets the ideology of the father of modern photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson; when in 1952 he coined the term “the decisive moment”.
CB recognised “The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which gives that event its proper expression…”. This sentiment neatly parallels the ‘Cranham method’. And indeed underlines the British photographer’s understanding of the art of timing.
It is these frozen passages of time, the ghosts and memories of competition that form the frames of Straffon’s print series. Here he also consciously entwines the spectre of Cartier-Bresson - as a manipulative force within each composed diptych - electing to apply the frenchman’s vitriolic dislike for colour photography. “Colour is for painters,” he once said. Similarly observing “In its present state of development, the medium of colour photography is for me only a means of documentation.”
In fusing the craft of each photographer’s individual modus operandi, Straffon seeks to revisit the emotion of those first colour broadcasts - creating a friction between the timeless stasis of a black and white image, and the more apparent ‘dating’ of the colour image and its time. This deliberate isolation of selected forms within ‘Chroma’ arrives at a questioning ‘optical resonance’. Whereas purely monotone images force the viewer to concentrate on detail, choice application of colour within these frames form a distraction, or reactive interplay of an object and its location. We see the memory challenged. The event distorted.
In addition, the split-screen boxes pay homage to Lichenstein’s scaled-up cartoon artworks of the mid-1960s. Straffon takes this Pop Art approach further, enacting a deliberate pseudo-collage technique - extracting the colour information in its entirety, then pasting (or repainting) colour areas directly over the identical mono counterpart below. In the process, he locates the viewer on two planes - viewing a sporting event on a simple black and white television, but also glimpsing the ‘new’ via the revolutionary experience of 625 lines of colour. A fresh narrative is created. A juxtaposition of separate moments is glimpsed - like the editing point of a film - one scene spliced against the next. Here Straffon holds that passing moment in time, suggesting the very essence of still; the unnoticed made tangible.
Each diptych presents an apparent presentation of ‘real colour’. In isolating a piece from the varicoloured neighbours in a jigsaw, the precise chroma of any given item buzzes with electricity. This questions the way in which we see the world - in that a red jacket can appear very different, if seen against a backdrop of green grass, to when the landscape recedes with greyness. Our eye and brain form an interpretation of what we see. Yet the selected colour of each separate item is in fact inaccurate. Colour truth evades us. The defining moment is a mere memory.
All artwork and images © James Straffon 2017.