It shows four men in a sailboat on relatively calm water. The gent with the cigar appears to be the eldest of the four — possibly the father. It is technically a very good photo. But there is something about it that rises above its technical competence.¹
This photo has an artistic element to it. It was made about 1918, two years before the Canadian artist, Alex Colville (1920-2013) was born. And yet, it seems to draw on Colville’s later brilliance at capturing the ordinary and then turning normal on its head by introducing a component of imminent danger.
I think this Crookall image has, in spades, all of what would later become Colville’s trademark qualities:
- Only one face of the four is fully visible (the person farthest from the viewer);
- The men seem to be doing ordinary tasks on a sail craft (the older man is fiddling with the rigging; the guy to his right seems to be at the wheel; the fellow at left, background is loafing; and the gent whose face we can see seems to be on lookout);
- And yet, I don’t think I’m imagining the tension in this photo. The lookout guy isn’t positioned to be very effective at his job (assuming that I’ve got his job right): the orientation of the sails prevents him from seeing what lies in front of the craft! Furthermore, while I’ve deduced that the fellow at right front is at the wheel, there is no wheel to be seen. Both of these features create a tension in the viewer. I believe the blackness of the companionway between ‘father’ and ‘wheel guy’ reinforces it.
As my old friend Wes rightly remarked when I brought this image to his attention two years ago, “Of course, if it were a Colville, one of these fellas would be loading a revolver!”
¹There were three other images made by Crookall, evidently on the same day with the same subjects, but not one of the others approaches the quality of this one. For all four images, see here.