Cameras have fascinated me all of my life. I do not remember a time before I loved them. Even as a small child my Dad’s Brownie was something I couldn’t keep my hands off. I struggled to correlate that this small item could record happy memories of relatives and holidays forever. Like most small boys, I was fascinated by dinosaurs, insects trapped in amber and time travel. Film became my amber, and the image contained on the negative was the insect. The camera of course became the time machine. Immortalised by the medium, our past is recalled in more detail than human memory alone permits. My Dad also had an old TLR camera which he allowed me to play with until I broke it (Hopefully it wasn’t an expensive one). Hopelessly I peered through the viewfinder wondering if I could see directly into the past and glimpse the same world from which the photographs were created. I don’t ever recall this being disappointing and it certainly didn’t cause my interest in cameras to wain, which is surprising considering the world of distractions that comes with growing up. But somewhere in those playful sessions long ago a deep rooted seed was embedded in my psyche.
In those formative early years that were the 1960’s, a camera in a working class family tended to be used for special occasions. Those owned by my Dad were pressed into duty for summer holidays, and occasionally at Christmas, usually when relatives were present. There didn’t seem to be a time outside of this when they saw use…probably due to the expense of film and processing. Ergo, a camera in our house was something of a luxury. The time between major events went unrecorded and consequently mostly forgotten. Had I not been ‘gifted’ the broken TLR to play with, I wonder if my interest in cameras would have eventually died and be replaced with one of a myriad other diversions.
The onset of the 1970’s brought with them every child’s fear, parental divorce. In what seemed like an instant, life changed forever and my younger brother and I were given a few minutes to grab what belongings we could carry, never to return to a suburban lifestyle. Action Men and Lego were the toys of the moment, and they were what we departed with. I never saw that TLR again and the next few years were spent in financial free-fall, therefore a camera like many things would be considered frivolous. But it didn’t stop me browsing John Myer’s et al catalogues admiring not only still camera gear, but projectors. After a brief dalliance with movie projectors, more to understand how a moving picture could be captured on film, my interest aligned itself again with stills cameras. But I soon realised that as a 10 year old, these catalogues were showing me things I could not afford. Even on Hire Purchase, my paper round could not stretch to such a committed payment regime. And there were other interests emerging that needed attention, but ownership of a camera burned within.
I am not sure how, two years later, I came into the heavenly sum of £10. It was more money than I had ever seen in one place. I am guessing it was attributed to diligent saving from my paper round as well as hoarding money given to me at birthdays. Whatever its origin, it was enough to get me a Kodak 110 camera with flash extender and a round of single use ‘Magicube’ flash bulbs. Finally I was set to go out and take pictures. Film was financed via a newly acquired pass time - fishing. I had managed to scrounge up some really old kit and soon realised that Trout meant cash which would sustain my demand for film and processing. It didn’t take me long to establish a ‘fish round’ that included a bunch of people on the council estate where I lived, an ice cream man, and the local Chinese takeaway. The Kodak 110 eventually broke and was followed up with a used Zenit model (I choose to ignore a 50p blue and black toy ‘Babette’ 35mm film camera purchased on a particularly miserable and wet week in a Bridlington caravan). And since those days, camera’s have been part of life.
So imagine, half a century later, when I suddenly found myself bereft of interest for what had been integral to the way I functioned as a Human Being. Having recorded most of my families life and a bunch of really interesting other stuff, the flame suddenly started to burn low. When I was a kid, I lived in disproportionate fear of the day Wine Gums ceased to be. I felt that I was stood on the precipice of another wine gum moment as my photographic muse fled. For about a year I had no interest in taking pictures although I still loved cameras and, oddly, continued to buy them. I began to wonder whether, as part of some weird transition to senior citizenship, that interest once sacrosanct suddenly no longer mattered.
Lockdowns came and went, interspersed with a couple of holidays which saw momentary revivals in my interest, driven by the ‘new canvas’ feeling I get when I visit somewhere new. But outside of these brief weeks, cameras were stowed away. Even updates for this site slowly ground to a halt.
In November I came across a bunch of images from a few years ago that I had processed in black and white. Their treatment was a bit crude and demonstrated none of the techniques I had learned more recently. I decided to reprocess them and compare the output, to find there was an undeniable improvement. Images appeared more powerful, resonating with emotion and mood. My photographic synapses began reconnecting, but in a very different way. Prior to this happening, black and white images were something I experimented with occasionally. Now I find myself ‘seeing’ in monochrome and looking for subjects that lend themselves well to this effect. Hence more recent collections of PhotoArk being moody and (possibly too) dark. It fits my vision and rekindled an interested that I thought lost. I had become tired of my own output and needed a big change. For years, when I went walking, I sought to capture picture perfect ‘chocolate box’ type landscape images. With a few exceptions, I now find them contrived. My preference has shifted to amplifying bleak vistas - if there is a storm bowing, I make the image more stormy. Similarly when photographing cities I go for urban decay, and try to exaggerate it beyond realism to the point of discomfort. I find challenges such as this exciting and pretty demanding, not only in the field but when post processing. I think this is what my photography has been lacking for years.
Of course there will always be times when I switch to glorious colour and any holidays I take will remain, on the whole, an experience relished as nature intended. There is no doubt that an aquamarine Mediterranean sea looks better captured in tones of azure that grey. But the Peak District in all of its murkiness appeals to me greatly now and I have little desire to capture it in colour any more. Creating scenes that discourage rather than invite visitors enthuses me. And having a bunch of little used gear has added fuel to my creative fire too. Not many months ago I was happy to simply collect new kit, try it out for a few hours, and put it in a cupboard. In retrospect, it feels criminal to have purchased some fine lenses like the Leica 75 and 35mm Summicrons for the L system only to admire the engineering. Also in retrospect there is an odd irony to my behaviour; Decades ago I was happy shooting with inexpensive lenses. The passion to create overrode GAS and I was content simply having the tools to create. Today I am privileged to own some of the finest ‘reference’ class lenses on the market, but acquiring them did nothing to fire my enjoyment. Until just now. I find myself wishing the working week away so that I can spend time out there somewhere, looking to capture a perfect moment in time and make it my own.
Reinvention can be found in the strangest of places and at unexpected moments. In this instance I am thankful it happened when it did as, not too many months ago, I thought that a life-long interest had died, along with part of my creative spirit.