Photograph of a room of unknown people, 21 December 1950

About ten years ago, looking through plastic bags of inherited junk in my mum’s house that no one wanted but no one could throw away, I found the photograph below.

On the back of the photo, in my grandfather’s handwriting, is the date ‘21.12.50’, and a faint ink stamp recording that the image was developed by Rawood Photography, of 12 Baker Street, W1. That’s as much as I know. I can’t find trace of the company now and 12 Baker Street is today the site of a Co-op food shop.

As a composition it’s a little ragged: the vacant carpet to the left; the screens visible at the back; the figures on the far left cut out. We’ve also seen it before – or at least images like it. It’s a work Christmas dinner, about 250 people, flowers on the table and folded napkins, a range of ages but many under 30, formal dress (some but not all of the men in black tie). It looks like more people turned up than were expected: chairs are squeezed awkwardly on to row ends. Just about everybody is turning to face the camera which is hovering about 12 feet in the air. Almost the only people who don’t look at us, apart from those few whose backs are turned, are the closest, front right: the three faces which, each in their different ways, remain focused on the man with his back to us who is holding forth.

Like all big group shots – the college graduation, the wedding – this is a photograph about taking the photograph. The shot, and the practice for the shot, are the same. At the back right, out of the main action, we can see steps and what looks like the hooded cloak and camera of a second photographer: another Rawood employee, presumably, readying themselves at the opposite end of the hall for another angle, the crowd about to turn on a shouted prompt for a shot in which our current seeing camera will appear in the back corner as steps and a hooded cloak.

The photo gets some power from the movement between generality and specificity. In one direction: the faces pool into a crowd, and the composition has a unity of occasion and subject. Rawood Photography seem to have specialised in this kind of scene, and the company’s secret is that all their photographs look the same – like this Rawood image, also from 1950. This could be any number of halls, on any number of mid-twentieth-century evenings. But this sense of the already known, of the interchangeable, is answered by its vertiginous opposite: the call of specificity, the particular faces, the way this person here pulls you in, and then that one there, the way you peer in close, the unanswerable questions, the individual stories that can never be known. (‘I exhaust myself realising that this-has-been,’ wrote Roland Barthes.)

The photographer and photojournalist Bill Brandt said a great image ‘should be a profound likeness, which physically and morally predicts the subject’s entire future’. That that isn’t the case here has to do with the particular kind of elusiveness that these faces present: the quality of being individual portraits existing within a group portrait. That’s why they don’t expect us to look that close, and certainly not at them alone, and have that rather vulnerable, not fully committed sense of being partly hidden away even as they are partly on display.

But the most absorbing elements are at the very edges. At the back in the centre, and half way down the left-hand wall, are what appear to be ghosts: two men, one (below, right) dressed in white like a waiter, the other in black with hands behind his back and a sense, in the slight tilt of his head, of having seen it all before. Both are possessed of a spectral translucency. They must have moved during the camera’s long exposure: through one (right), we see the folds of the long curtains behind him, while the other (left), appears to be coming into being, or fading from view. Either way, he is not entirely there, unlike the sturdily embodied diners in front of him.

You look closely, and the photograph acquires a double subject. The first is the Christmas dinner that is about to start on an evening 70 years ago, the crackers ready, the bread rolls, the waiters hovering in the kitchens with heavy trays. The second is the unreachably passed past, the shock of realising that these lively figures occupy a state of total alterity: of gone-ness -- ‘that rather terrible thing,’ as Barthes wrote, ‘which is there in every photograph.’ I wouldn’t make any claims for this being a good photo, in the way a photo by Paul Strand or Tina Modotti is good, but it is compelling when these two registers collide: the knife poised over the butter dish, and the rolling wall of history.