Cameras Of My Life (a geekography)
Saturday 22nd March 2014 2:45pm
You don't get to my age without losing things along the way. Either through loss, breakdown, damage or theft '“ nothing ever lasts forever, or so it seems. Recently I lost my main camera (a Nikon D2x). Most people's first response was 'oh well, the insurance will cover it' (if only). To an extent they're right, it's only a possession, a mass produced thing that can be replaced. That didn't stop me going into a blue funk, only lifted by the influx of some consultancy money that allowed me to get all excited about researching and buying my next daily companion. But a whole month without a camera, for the first time in over 30 years, got me reflecting on my personal history of the equipment I'd had, the money I'd spent, the decisions I'd made. So I decided to lay some of it out, on the off-chance that the story of my photographic development (excuse the pun) would be of some interest, or even some use.
Part 1: The Russian Years (1980-1985, aged 13-18)For me photography started in an after-school club. I'm unsure now how I came to be involved but it was around the time my parents split up and a solitary, immersive, hobby was just the right thing for a disturbed and anti-social teen boy such as I was. Certainly none of the few 'friends' I had were in any way interested and the camera gave me reasons to go out on excursions on my own. I vaguely remember living with my mother at her sister's in south Yorkshire for a while. There were two much younger boys (one we would recognise as suffering from ADHD in these days) and one much older boy '“ so I was very much out of place. Fortunately at the time South Yorkshire buses were incredibly cheap and I could wonder off on my own for miles. Photography gave me an impetus, a reason to go a wandering. The act of 'doing photography' was an end in itself. I had no particular vision, no desire to shoot anything in particular. I was driven to simply find new things I hadn't seen before and commit them to film. I don't think I've ever really broken away from this. I've gone through phases or doing Macro, Street, Architecture, Still Life, Performance and all kinds of genres. People are forever asking me 'what kind of photography do you do?'. But for me photography has always been my life's companion, my reason for seeing. An activity that both immerses me in a place or a moment, and distances me from it at the same time. My camera is my pal, my reason for being in alien places surrounded by strangers and strangeness. Photography then was a means of capturing something I could never be a part of, and so somehow, making me a part of it after all.
At first just having money for film was a real challenge. 36 exposures bought from the school darkroom stores would typically need to last me a couple of weeks at least. The idea of owning a camera of my own was inconceivable, but I could get a loan of the school Zenits (they had an EM and an 11). I remember how the shutter speed dial was tiny and edged with sharp prongs to help the grip, but which would dig into your finger pads after prolonged use. My opportunity to shoot was highly restricted. Then one day my mother did the second thing in her life that gave the tiniest hint that she had a spark of humanity in her. Perhaps fuelled by the guilt of driving my father, brothers and sister from the house she came home with a present for me. A Russian Zorki 4 rangefinder camera costing the princely sum of '‚£10.
I instantly loved it. The feel in the hand was like nothing else I had ever owned or known. Solid, real, dependable. Like a brick, an anchor tethering me to the world. It broke within 24hours. They have a vertical running cloth shutter and one of the cloth strips snapped '“ it was simply tired and at the end of its life. It's the only camera that has ever suffered a shutter failure on me, I've always been super paranoid about shutters ever since. I can't remember if this was before or after my mother murdered my dog, but the feeling was equally intense.
Of course, despite the love I poured into my new constant companion, my photography wasn't very good.
I had but the one lens (a Jupiter-8 f/2 50mm standard optic) and no light meter. I knew nothing about composition, and could only rarely afford to take a shot. Plus, the town I lived in was excessively grey, what with all of its Yorkshire stone, iron works and grey rainy skies.
I would have to guess at the exposure setting using the sunny-16 rule:
On a sunny day set aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO film speed for a subject in direct sunlight.
Which in Huddersfield really meant using the rainy-8 rule '“ you get the point.
This typically led to excessively thin negatives, and that I think is why for many years I was way better at darkroom work than at camera work. But that was fine, I liked the darkroom. The predictability of the process suited my tenacious nature and I could spend hours sweating in the dark over the most difficult of negatives. It was a damn sight better than failing to kick a football about in the sunshine that's for sure.
Over time I expanded my kit, always when a bargain cropped up '“ typically at Beckton's pawn shop or on one memorable occasion at the fire damage sale in Arcade Camera's sister shop where one generous man's misery was my great delight. I ended up with a 1959 Jupiter-11 (135mm f/4), a 1949 Jupiter-12 (35mm f/2.8), a Euromaster light meter and a multi-turret additional viewfinder. All in the most shocking of conditions. But none that ever really let me down.
Part 2: Getting Serious with Olympus (1985-1999, aged 18-32)So growing up for me was defined by struggle. Yeah, I know, it was the eighties and we all struggled '“ what with Thatcher and Bananrama. But nonetheless I was struggling with a lack of funds, poor but loved equipment, lack of experience, and lack of focus to develop a meaningful experience. As I said, photography was. And continued to be, a companion activity '“ not yet a pursuit in and of itself. I never had a conscious direction. I guess I lacked any belief that anything would ever lead anywhere. I'd done okay in my O-levels, and picked up a deep skill in computer programming (for a time writing code for the local university who had no-one that could successfully interface their RML 380Zs to their experimental equipment). I'd gone through A-levels doing the easy stuff, Maths, Physics and Computer Science (failing wilfully at General Studies). So in 1985 I found myself doing the obvious thing. Studying Computer Science at Teesside University and spending my first student grant on a new camera.
Looking back now I can see that my choice was heavily influenced by the Zorki. The diminutive nature of a rangefinder carried through on my choice of SLR and the lack of metering led me to a system that was, at the time, leading edge (this was before such things as 3D Matrix Metering, which frankly blew me away when I first read about it). So here, there's a very real, tangible, expression of how our environment conditions our response to the world. We jog (or meander) through life believing our actions to be wholly independent and rational, but in hindsight I can see that the conspiracy of experience directed me in my decision to enter in to the OM System.
I can't now remember what happened to the Zorki. I guess something traumatic that I've blanked from my mind. I vaguely recollect having to take the Jupiter-11 apart after it developed a case of rigour mortis'¦ but since those lenses had never cost me more than a few pounds each it was a bearable loss. Once I moved to Olympus I was spending anything between '‚£30 and '‚£60 on a lens.
I think I gave the OM10 away to encourage a budding interest in photography elsewhere, again I find it hard to recall what happened.
I'd drifted through school and university simply doing what I happened to be good at, and finally into a high paid contracting job. That's as far as my life's vision had ever stretched. My father had always done his best to encourage his off-shoots to attain an education and once I'd done that I was devoid of direction. This is the period where I ran a theatre company for a while, took up performance poetry, did a higher degree in playwriting, took a TEFL course and was the chair for the local Music and Arts Collective. Condensed so, it appears a colourful and varied life.
But it was a chaotic period that also saw me blow the rent on a sure-thing fell-at-the-first-fence horse race, leading to my one and only moon-light flit. I remember recovering 50p pieces from a gas meter to pay for drinks with the local Arts Council drama officer, who you may have thought would understand the poverty writers live in. At times I would have to dodge angry crowds of local drug addicts since the interface of worlds always brings with it a certain friction (fortunately, heralding from an anonymous Irish ancestry I had the protection of a tight-knit and caring family). In short not a time where serious photography got much of a look in. If the Zorki had been my pal, the OM2sp was my neglected pen-pal.
I suppose it's inevitable that through a period of such poor focus, my photography would languish.
For all of the activity and immense expenditure of energy, I was basically burning years. Fortunately instead of leading to ruin I simply woke up one day (about 4 years later) thinking that it was time to get a proper job and earn some money for a change. So I took a job in a start-up company, operated by my ex-boss of 4 years prior who'd had the honour of sacking me back then. I was just too good at what I did though and he knew my skills would make a difference.
Just as I had in South Yorkshire, I went a roaming in this distant and strange land with just my camera as companion '“ seeking out new things with the sole purpose of capturing them on film. I took many photographs. The camera, the environment, the personal internal focus transfigured my photography. All of a sudden it seemed, my work was actually quite good.
The last shot I took on the OM2sp was of a beheading. I knew it was about to happen, and I struggled through the decision to shoot it or not. In the last moment, as the blade swung down I decided that I would. I truly did not want to become a part of such animal cruelty and I knew the act of photographing a thing binds you to that thing. Every shot taken changes you, to a greater or lesser degree, and I allowed this goat's staged death to change me. I took the shot. But then, I lost the camera. In fact I lost an entire car. I absentmindedly left my car keys on the counter in a shopping mall as I travelled home. By the time I realised, they had gone. The remote locking device had allowed the thief to help themselves to my car, my camera, and my life changing shot of a goat's beheading. I think, to an extent I was relieved.
The final thing that swung it for me was the realisation that this camera had a shutter made out of titanium, surely putting to rest any lingering paranoia regards the possibility of shutter failure.
So I found myself in a strange, exotic and visually rich land with my only companion the finest camera I had never dared dream to own. Apart from the inconvenience of work (!) I not only had a sprawling canvas of photographic opportunity laid out before me, but I had no impediment nor distraction from making the most of it. Giving me the impetus to seek out the best possible shots I could, the OM4TI took me, almost, to the top of the world.
Wandering the streets of Mumbai one Saturday afternoon after a monsoon fall of rain and with a satchel full of money (I was paid by the satchelful in those days) I was stopped by a trader insistent that he had a lens I must buy. I was somewhat dubious that he had anything that would even fit an OM4TI, let alone that I would feel impelled to buy. But he produced (from god knows where) a legendary Zuiko 55mm F/1.2 optic. Shooting exclusively with available light I have always favoured fast lenses. Later in life I stuck with Nikon manual focus lenses for years after the introduction of AF largely because AF lenses are typically a whole stop darker. So this was a true gem. The price was, of course, almost nothing. I paid him more than he was asking and continued my globetrotting feeling like the richest man in the world.
Not only did the OM4TI take me to the top of the world and furnish me with one of the finest lenses I'd ever had my hands on, it was even the camera I shared my life with when first I met my future wife.
Even though it was just a product, easily replaced, it certainly has a place close to my heart. It even had the good grace to die at an appropriate time, quietly in its sleep.
Part 3: Stepping Up To Pro Grade Kit (1999-2006, aged 32-39)Once I returned home the OM4TI exposure system failed, so I was left with a husk of a camera. But it had done a damn fine job and by now my photographic skills, both technical and compositional, had progressed such that it really made no sense to continue with anything other than the finest optics available. As good as Olympus were, they did not keep pace with innovation (or market share) through the 90s and for top quality glass a move to Nikon (or I suppose Canon) was necessary. I made an insurance claim against the OM4TI and entered into a lengthy battle with The Loss Adjuster, who wanted to saddle me with a Nikon F100. I simply didn't trust this model. Having travelled the world I wanted something undeniably robust, that wasn't going to let me down in the middle of a desert thousands of miles from home (I didn't yet know such wayfaring was largely behind me).
Every SLR I've owned since has brought me that kind of success, so the FM3a marks the dawning of a new chapter in my photographic journey. A highly robust, no frills, minimum features camera that's all about delivering results. No longer a buddy in a big and frightening world, but rather my lieutenant in the war I am raging against the worst excesses of so-called humanity. And still, shaped from my childhood, I was favouring mechanical devices over the emerging all electronic and disposable world.
By this time my day job had descended back into the mundane. I mean, it was alright, I was doing good work '“ contributing to international standards, problem solving problems much bigger corporations couldn't get their heads around, orchestrating the best efforts of others; but there was little further to challenge me. At the same time my soon to be wife had moved to London and we spent years on a 'long distance' relationship. So once again, I quit what I was doing to seek brave new adventures (this time on amicable terms) and set off for a life in London. Taking the FM3a with me.
Once I moved to Nikon I found my average spend on optics was around 10x what I had been spending with Olympus (and around 100x what I had been spending with the Zorki), a typical lens costing ~'‚£600, but the consequential quality is palpable.
By this time (2006) the world had firmly shifted to digital '“ just as I was attaining some level of basic capability with film and was finally equipped with top grade camera and darkroom equipment. I refused to fully embrace digital for another 4 years. In the interim I took full advantage of the world's penchant for discarding the perfectly good in preference for 'the next big thing'.
I was also seriously researching my skills. Around this time my older brother would routinely buy me books of Ansell Adams photographs for Christmas etc and I studied his 3 volume work inside out. I understand the Zone System attracts its fanaticism both in defence and attack of it '“ and nothing irritates me more than the blind stubborn stances that people take on this issue. Certainly Adams taught me a lot, since I read him with an enquiring mind not as a slavish adopter. He did however have the same family name as my soon to be wife, so I knew he could not be all bad.
Having moved to London and allowed the BBC to take advantage of my skills I found I'd joined what was then a pretty old school corporation. Surprisingly a few months after joining I found there was an annual 'performance related bonus' scheme, which gifted me in excess of '‚£1k on top of my wage. If I'd known this was going to happen perhaps I would have tried harder. This was a rare influx of excess, unaccounted for, money and my ever supportive wife didn't bat an eyelid when I said "I'd kinda like to buy a camera".
The quality of the lenses is unquestionable, and in modern technology, unattainable. The top quality Nikon lenses I was starting to use gave stunning resolution and clarity '“ but the character of the 1950s Leica lenses I bought (35mm Summaron f/3.5, 50mm Summicron f/2) was irresistible. And although it was entirely awkward to set the camera up, once on the street it was simply the most discrete piece of kit possible. This camera led me into street photography by its nature and its history. Although I had started treating cameras as though I was their master rather than they were my pal '“ with the Leica it was almost as though the camera was treating me as ITS pal. We stayed together for 3 or 4 years then parted company amicably. I sold it on as I was becoming more immersed in the advantages of digital (and as digital was growing up somewhat) since we were spending less and less time together. But it is a period in my photography I won't forget, and even now I suspect there'll be a time when I dabble with a pre-war Leica once again. Or maybe I'll get truly serious and pick up an M3 at some point'¦ It's good to know they're out there.
Part 4: Turning Digital (2006-to date, aged 39-47)
The story here on out is much simpler. Somewhere along the way I had lost a father but gained a wife. So I maintained a stabilising influence in my life, there was someone there for whom it was worth living. For a long time photography as my companion was all about recording the worse of what I saw, kids who were soon to be dead, pigs snuffling in the trash on the streets of Mumbai, Goats sacrificed for tourists in Nepal. But somewhere a subtle change settled in and I came to realise that the best of my work was about making the ugly, or the mundane, beautiful. We're well aware of the grand lie that is the beauty industry, and we can see clearly the hideous nature of furs and cosmetics. But understanding the beauty that is evident in the everyday is much harder, and I do not claim to understand it, but I do believe that now my camera and I can render it. I once read that boys don't grow up until they lose their father, and for a while it seemed true for me. But as I reflect now on the course I have travelled with my photography and my cameras I see this shift in my work as being coincident with the voluntary commitment I gave to my now wife. My father gave me an outsider's life, a distrust of and rage against the world. My wife tempers that, with joy and a damned good reason to try and make it a better place.
The D200 went with me to over 500 gigs and recorded an archive of in excess of 3000 London performances before succumbing to a drunken evening's dousing in absinthe, from which it never recovered. But it had done a job that no other camera has, and although that archive is little consumed whilst oft abused (yes, people do keep stealing my work although I'll refrain from naming the bastards here) it sits there ready to delight generations to come. The performance photography though was something akin to a succubus, taking far too much time and energy distracting me from being more dedicated to creating images for their own sake, which is something I now longed more and more for.
So with the demise of the D200 I had to re-equipment myself, and on a much tighter budget. But as you'll realise, I've never been interested in spending megabucks on the latest hot thing. Cameras have never been commodity for me. Each and every one has come at a price that it had to justify, they have always had to earn their place.
At first the D2x picked up where the D200 left off, adding to my live performance archive, but then my wife came up with a brilliant idea. But more on that shortly'¦
For all the benefits of the D2x, it was a bulky beast and there were many days when I would elect to leave it at home. This didn't sit well. Not a day had passed in over 30 years when I had not owned a camera, and having such a camera sat at home felt like an utter waste. About this time (2012) we had successfully won a bullying in the workplace case. One of the hardest times of our lives, I really felt that we had fought and slayed dragons. The win brought with it a modest recompense which not only took us to Greece for a much needed holiday but which also bought me my tenth camera.
So I returned to the trusty, but bulky D2x in order to execute on my wife's excellent idea. Photographing the London performance scene had become a drag, and had never been appreciated as much as it ought to have been. But I needed a significant project, a grand opus if you like. The idea was to photograph every tube station on the London underground system, all 267 of them. But to make one (just one) excellent 'artistic' (as opposed to documentary) image of each. This would take at least a year, and so would encompass a sense of time and season. It would also be an archival record of substance of one aspect of the city in time. Furthermore it would capitalise on the approach my photography has currently arrived at. For me, right now, its all about what Ansell Adams would call 'image management' '“ control of the geometry of the optics.
The D2x has passed on, I don't want to go into the details, it's still too painful '“ but rest assured camera number 11 has been chosen wisely and is starting its friendship with me in the most positive of terms.