Ever since the first, grainy images of her shattered corpse slowly emerged from the depths of the Atlantic on September 1st, 1985, the Titanic has been photographed, video filmed and pored over like no other disaster site on the planet. Our level of fascination with almost every single detail of the ‘Floating Ritz’ has fuelled a series of increasingly more sophisticated descents to the wreck site.
And, as cameras have got more sophisticated and all seeing, mapping techniques have also moved on massively. We can now view the morass of wreckage on the ocean floor almost as perfectly as any town ashore seen via Google Earth. And, the more we see, the more we seem to want.
Think about it; the Titanic lies some four hundred miles from the nearest land, two and a half miles down in the most violent and unpredictable ocean on the planet. And yet she has been pored- and pawed-over far more extensively than either of her great tragic contemporaries, the Empress Of Ireland and the Lusitania. And yet both of those wrecks are less than a few miles from shore, lying in only a few hundred feet of water in both cases.
Of course, neither of those ships wiped out well over half of the New York social register in one spectacular exit. For sure, the Titanic exerts a dreadful compulsion, a kind of awe inspired level of fascination that makes her a true stand alone. Two and a half miles down in the freezing Atlantic, this faded, shattered diva quite literally has the floor to herself. She is a century long theatre show that is still drawing the crowds.
And, as always with the Titanic, it is the things that we still cannot see for ourselves that exert the true pull. Things we expected to see, but did not.
There is no long, jagged gash from where the iceberg was presumed to have ripped open her hull like some salt water assassin, shrouded by darkness. And- what would have been the ultimate money shot- almost no sign of the elegant gilt letters that once spelt out her name, either on the bows or the ruptured carnage of the stern.
But my word, what we did see was haunting enough….
The sudden, startling reveal of that great knife like bow, with the anchor crane swung crazily round, must rank as one of the most iconic photographs ever taken. And the debris field, strewn between the two halves of the hulk, reveals human life at it’s most magnificent and mundane.
Here, tea cups and chamber pots from third class lie strewn among champagne bottles from the first class wine cellar, their corks still in place. The front of a doll’s head gazes with sightless eyes at the slowly rusting frames of deck benches. Shoes, bags, and boilers sit juxtaposed in a hellish, haphazard underwater viewing gallery, frozen in space and time. Once remote, we can now view them with almost microscopic clarity.
The grave site of Titanic combines the stunted , eerie majesty of Pompeii with the sense of awe and wonder that Howard Carter must have first felt when he stumbled upon the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. How bizarre to think that the innards of the RMS Titanic had already been strewn across the sea bed for a full decade by the time he made that epochal discovery.
For all of their great clarity, excellence and sheer, haunting quality, the modern, almost forensic quality photographs of RMS Titanic were easily, effortlessly eclipsed, many decades ago
Look at the famous photo, taken by Frank Beken, of the Titanic as she steamed majestically down Southampton Water towards the Isle of Wight. Proud, brand new and full of promise, the great ship was overflowing with life. excitement and hope. The pride and the poise of the ‘greatest of the works of man’ is palpable, and near perfect.
It was never bettered and, in the way of these things, it never can be. And, however many times that I gaze in awe and respect at the stilled, ghastly, strangely dignified mess crouching silently on the ocean floor, whenever I think of Titanic, I see her in the same awed, amazed way that Frank Beken must have done on the early afternoon of Wednesday, April 10th, 1912. And I always will.