Posts Tagged ‘cameras’

I was at a junk market, where I found myself seduced by an Agfa Silette, a commercially successful camera, from the 1950’s. It fit the hand well. Instinctively, the thumb sought the lever, and cocked the shutter, finger moving easily to the release. It would have been a fine camera to use in its day. Later models, with the built-in light metering, would have been the bees knees, and the mainstay provider of pictures for the family album. I pressed the shutter, but there was no click. The shutter was broken. This camera’s journey was over. Still, the guy wanted twenty quid for it.

There’s a fashion for these things, I know, but the lenses on most of these old timers are pretty much gone now, with mould seeping between the elements. This one was heading the same way Much as it’s nice to see old tech still functioning, when it’s beyond repair, you need to let it go. There are cameras of this vintage, still in good nick, but they’re rare. And people pay good money for them. But why? Would it be for show, do you think? Did it even matter if the camera was junk? Would it simply end up on a hipster’s book-shelf, along with coffee table tomes of Ansel Adams and David Bailey?

You can still get film. Indeed, according to the marketing, it’s seeing something of a revival just now. A roll of 36 shots will cost you a tenner. You can get it processed for another a tenner, even digitised. So, twenty quid for 36 shots, half of which will be duds, and the rest murky, when ten thousand clear shots, on a digital camera, won’t cost you anything. And these weren’t easy cameras to handle. You had to know photography. Without the ability to read the light, the exposure was guesswork, ditto focusing. There was a skill to it, one your Uncle Fred, the camera buff, took pride in. But there are no Uncle Freds any more. Now everyone’s an expert, because the camera does it for you. Even the camera on a cheap phone will knock spots off this old thing.

The first, low resolution digital cameras were enough to make me abandon film, twenty years ago. I went from a sophisticated Pentax film SLR, with a bag full of lenses, to a simple, fixed focus Kodak. And what I lost on the one hand, in optical quality, I felt I had gained plenty. I could shoot a hundred pictures, review them on the camera, and delete the ones I didn’t like, thus making room for more shots, without having to change the film roll. I could apply techniques with software I would have needed a darkroom to do before. And I could print my own photographs.

Then, over those twenty years, and like all digital technology, cameras have seriously overtaken their analogue cousins. Whether in darkness or full sun, they’ll grab a usable image that would have been impossible with film. The software for post-processing is endless in its variety. It renders the dark-room obsolete, moving it onto your computer. And yet,…

I was still drawn to this old camera. It fit the hand so well? I’d disposed of my film cameras years ago, and never looked back. And if you really must have that quirky, murky, antique look, you can simulate it in digital. No need to go to the trouble and expense of reverting to film. Is it because it’s all too easy now? Do we prefer some limitation? Does the surprise of one or two cracking shots, from a roll of 36, trump the ease of a decent shot every time?

All right, I think my interest was most likely on account of a camera of similar vintage making an unexpected appearance in my current work in progress. A Voightlander. I don’t know what it means, nor why it should be a Voightlander, and not an Agfa, like this one, or a Kodak. But there it is, and it’s been teasing me to make sense of it.

It’s about images from the past, right? A way of seeing, that we’ve lost? Too much of the left-brain’s utility, while the right-brain’s existentially holistic overview diminishes, and leaves us barren, lobotomised, robotic creatures. Or am I overthinking it? The metaphors are endless and beguiling. And maybe if this camera had been a Voightlander, and working, for a tenner, I might have bought it for the vibe, though not for the use of it. As it was, I put it back.

Metaphorical explorations are best kept in the heart and the head. No sense going literal with this one. But clearly there’s a message here, and it’s demanding to be explored. I’m strictly digital these days, but I’ll be the first to admit there’s still something tempting, indeed something very much of the romantic, about those old cameras. I mean, just imagine the times they might have known, and the things they might have seen, when their eyes were still bright.

And there, I think, I have my answer.

Thanks for listening.

Header image, original source file, attribution: Jonathan Zander, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons. Crop and further editing in Luminance HDR, and Corel PP9 by the author. Edited image subject to same terms.

Read Full Post »

I wish I could remember the name of that camera shop on Pall Mall. That’s Pall Mall in Chorley, not the more famous Pall Mall, in London. It’s forty years since it closed, but I can still hear the sound of the doorbell as I enter, feel the hollow ring of the place, the scent of it, see the weird photographic contraptions on the shelves: the bellows, the enlargers, the developing kits. The guy rises to meet me, suit and tie, yellow fingers from the nicotine. He knew cameras, lived and breathed them, and he didn’t mind sharing his knowledge, even with the pocket-money teenager I was then, and who could barely afford the price of film.

My father was a frequent customer. He bought second hand equipment: cameras, developing tanks. I remember ancient box enlargers too, with fixed focal lengths and grubby lenses. The stuff was always dusty, and smelled of the cigarettes of past owners. By the time it fell into my father’s hands, it was next to junk. But he’d bring it home with a gleam in his eye, like one who had discovered treasure and was eager to share it. Thus equipped, through the haze of an already bygone era, we learned the rudiments of developing film. That’s no small feat when you’re living in a small semi, without the luxury of a dark-room. Needless to say, we improvised a lot.

Our rewards were few, but precious all the same – soft images that took ages to tease out, and which would all too often fade back into the paper again for want of fixative. I couldn’t help feeling the effort taught us little, only that we needed better kit.

I swore I would have a darkroom one day, a bees-knees enlarger, and bags of space to set out those trays of sweet smelling chemicals. But then the world changed, and I didn’t need any of it. You could do it all on your computer, even on your telephone. Nowadays, I lift the ‘phone and produce effortless images in seconds, enlarge or shrink with a swipe of the finger. I can post-process too, add any number of effects and have them beamed round the world for other eyes to see. He’d be ninety now, my father. I imagine him with an iPhone in his pocket – second hand of course – but still pushing the limits of what you could do with it.

I don’t know what we were searching for back then, what rich seam of enlightenment we’d hoped to strike. Was it something in the images we sought? But those images were like ghosts, and hard to bring out, to materialize. Or was it more about the technology, such as ours was then, I mean it being near Victorian, in an age of rockets? Sure, that might have been the thing. The world can be intimidating in its complexity if you think too wide and too deep about it. But if you can master one small part of it, you feel in some way something less than small. That’s the gist anyway. We never produced enough images to get into the mystery of them. That was another universe altogether.

My father’s best camera was an early Russian SLR, again from the dusty, cigarette scented shelves of that shop on Pall Mall. It had no doubt been cast off by a more well heeled amateur, who’d upgraded. The only mode it possessed was manual. There was no metering. We read the light with a hand-held selenium meter, and dialled it in, or more often we got a feel for what would work – aperture and shutter speed – and we trusted to luck.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But then a timely “follow” on the blog interrupts the flow of my thoughts, and promises I can: “acquire abundance of wealth, and confidence.” Also: “Happiness, and can address change smartly, what many would observe as impossible.

This is no small claim, and bears closer scrutiny.

It goes on to tell me I can: “Feel, act and live happy, because happiness is the objective of everyone’s life.”

Well okay, feel act and live happy. Nothing wrong with that, but as an aim itself it’s somewhat simplistic, and a common enough trap for the unwary, though useful for the vendors if they can harness it to the cause of commerce at our expense. Still, I’m grateful for the interruption, for my reaction points me in the right direction, closes the arc, so to speak, and we have our conclusion.

I have some decent cameras now. But in using them, the aim, the drive hasn’t changed. It’s the same as when my father and I struggled developing film in the bathroom, half a century ago, a towel over the window and a safelight that took ages to fix up and take down again when the bathroom was required for more conventional purposes – often urgently and in the middle of timing an exposure. It’s about exploration, and the desire to understand a thing bigger than oneself, for such a thing serves as the surface proxy for another kind of quest, something archetypal, something transcendent, and internal. I glimpse it now and then in the images I’m taking, and more often by chance – the camera seeing something I do not. It’s an abundance of something, call it a wordless insight. We can reject it of course, seek instead our “health, wealth and happiness” in the material world, through material things, and become ever dissatisfied slaves to it. Or we can say yes please, more of that transcendent thing, and then the world becomes at once a place of magic, and much more the worthy objective of a man’s life.

Yes, it was a treasure trove my father shared, that dusty old kit from the camera shop on Pall Mall, but mostly it was his enthusiasm for the quest, and for the insight one could still pursue the transcendent through the symbolism of the mundane. He knew something of the nature of things, I think, and was kind enough, to pass it on.

Read Full Post »

canal parbold_edited

The Leeds-Liverpool canal at Parbold, Lancs.

I was out along the canal yesterday with my camera. There were the usual canal-side scenes: houseboats moored-up, ropes taut, cosy curls of smoke rising from squat chimneys. There was a bridge, a windmill, an old canal-side pub, and a low, wintry sun scattering yellow stars across mud coloured water. It was late afternoon with a clear, pale sky, but little energy in it, and it was cold. I took around twenty shots, but none came out the way I saw them. They lacked detail, seemed flat, with a compressed range of tones. Indeed, I might have done as well with my phone – and my phone’s not great.

This tells me two things, both probably true: One, I’ve still a way to go before I learn how to handle that camera properly and, two, my imagination tends to over-paint a scene in ways a camera can never capture, that when we see the world as human beings, we are seeing it through more than just the eyes. There is also an inner vision we project, a thing comprising the warp of imagination and the weave of emotion, like a net we overlay upon the world – and it’s this that breathes life into our experience.

Still, I tell myself the lens was sluggish, that it might be fine in a part of the world with an abundance of light, say in the tropics, but on a winter’s day in Lancashire, even wide open at F3.5, it’s going to struggle, that my pictures will always be as flat and muddy as the canal’s water. So I’ve coppered up, and ordered another camera, second hand this time, but with a much faster lens, indeed the finest of lenses, a Leica lens. I’m thinking that if I can only let in more light, I can get closer to things the way I see them.

It won’t work of course. I already have several decent cameras and another one isn’t going to change anything because what I’m chasing here are ghosts. Only rarely do people photograph ghosts, and when they do, it’s likely the result is faked, like my header picture was faked in Photoshop to bring out the light and the detail to some resemblance of how I remembered it.

And there’s another problem. Take a look on Instagram, or Flikr, and you’ll see great volumes of images that already depict the world in powerful ways, volumes that are being added to every second of the day. I’ve been taking pictures nearly my whole life, yet probably only captured a few scenes that are a match for any of the millions of beautiful images that exist already. Do I really imagine, when I put a picture up on Instagram I will make the world hold its breath, even for a moment?

No. And this isn’t really about others anyway.

What I’m seeking is a reflection of myself in an abstraction of shape and colour and light. I look at the sizzling detail in the finest photographs of yesteryear and wish I could render my world as crisply alive as that. Lenses hand-ground a hundred years ago seem, in the right circumstances, and in the right hands, to far surpass anything I can approach with the most modern cameras of today. I want to get down to the very atoms of creation, you see? I want to focus them sharply and with a depth of field that stretches from the tip of my nose to the edge of the universe. Why? Well, given enough accurate information, perhaps I’ll be capable of understanding the puzzle of creation, or at least my own part in it.

I know, I have a tendency to over-romanticise.

It was a quest that began forty years ago. I sought it in those days with my father’s old Balda, a 120 film camera, from the 1940’s. It had a queer, knocked lens that gave a strange, closely overlapping double image. But as I grew older and began to earn money, I sought it with a long string of 35mm SLRs, through several thousand frames of Fujichrome. And then I abandoned all that for the miracle of digital and a one megapixel Kodak, even though that wasn’t quite the miracle we’d hoped for – just the beginning of another technology arms race I waited a quarter century to catch up to the quality of my Olympus OM10 – which some bastard nicked from my car in 1986. And now, when even twenty five megapixels fails me, I look for it in the gaps, under the microscope of Photoshop, under the shifting moods attainable by all that digital fakery, and I look for it under the soft blown smears of inadequate shutter speed, and the promise of a tripod next time.

But in all of this, the most valuable lesson photography has taught me is the irrelevance of equipment, of technology, of technique, indeed also the fallacy of seeking to record the spirit of the earth at all, to say nothing of the ghost-like reflection of oneself in it. But this is not to dismiss the art altogether, for at least when we settle down, say in the midst of a spring meadow with our camera to await just the right fall of light, – be it with a 1940’s squinting Balda or last year’s Nikon – we slow time to the beating of our hearts, we open up the present moment, and we re-establish a sense of our presence in the world.

Only when we focus down, say on the texture of a tree’s bark, or on the translucent quality of a broad Sycamore leaf when the glancing sun catches its top, do we sense the aliveness of nature and our aliveness within it. Only then do we remember what beauty really is and how it feels as it caresses our senses. Only then do we realise the best photographs of all are the ones we do not take, but the ones we remember. And we remember them because, through photography, we have learned to take the time to look with more than just our eyes, to not just see the world, but feel it in our bones.

Still, I may be wrong, in which case I’ve still got high hopes for that Leica lens.

Read Full Post »


I fell out with the Single Lens Reflex Camera around the time digital was invented, found myself leaving the thing behind. It was a Pentax P70 with a medium zoom lens. It must have weighed over a Kilogram, and I was for travelling to places much lighter by then, and returning less tired. So I snapped the nineties and the noughties on a range of digital compacts, of increasing pixel count, cameras that travelled discretely in the pocket.

My family like the shots that have their faces in them. The rest, the scenic shots, the still lifes, are all neatly catalogued and backed up but, like my old Kodachrome slides from the 80’s, I rarely bother browsing them. Such is the lot of the amateur photographer, forever in search of that profound image, and nobody to show it to who gives a damn anyway. I sometimes snap myself, or have others do it for me, but then wonder what the Hell I’m thinking.

Mostly I prefer to be out of shot.

The current compact is a Canon G12, a worthy device, at the upper end of the market – or rather it was when I bought it – things move on so quickly these days. I took this picture of some conkers with it:

conkersWhy? Well, who can resist a conker? I like the colours, the autumn feel, which I amplified a little in Painshop. It conjures memories of childhood, schoolyard conker fights, the oily sheen when you first crack them open.

It was an arranged shot, the conkers recovered from a pile of leaf mould, and posed, so to speak. I extended the zoom to maximum, and set the broadest aperture I could, given the available light in order to isolate the subject and blur the background. I like the effect, but for all of that, I don’t suppose it’ll mean much to my great-great grandchildren who’ll be faced with the dilemma of continuing to archive great-great grandad Michael’s conker picture, or just deleting the damned thing. After all – I mean – what on earth was he thinking? Experience of past post-mortem clear-outs tells me only faces will be preserved, and maybe not even those, if names have already been forgotten.

Second exhibit: picture of a tree, green pasture, sheep, starburst sun:

treeoflifepicIt was the shadow of the tree that struck me here, almost reflection-like in quality. It put me in mind of the symbolic “tree of life”, the branches mirrored by its roots. I took it with a digital SLR, a Nikon D5600, with a medium zoom, which, like that earlier SLR camera must weigh over a kilogram again, and I’m wondering how much use it will see, because I still like to travel light. Purists won’t like the starburst, which is more of a lens artifact than artistically intended, though paradoxically you can buy filters to achieve the same effect.

The camera is new – bought it recently. It has a much bigger sensor than the G12, and twice the resolution. It delivers greater dynamic range, depth of colour, and a clearer, sharper image, but these things are only apparent if you’re particular about what you’re looking for. If you’re not, you might as well just use the camera on your phone, which, if it was made in the last few years, is probably pretty good anyway. This is called tech-talk and it always runs the risk of devouring itself, photography then becoming more about the device than the image, and that’s certainly the way it is with many photography enthusiasts. They talk intelligently and endlessly about aperture, ISO and lens distortions, but I always find their pictures rather dull.

Perhaps they’d feel the same about my conkers.

It could be a question of transience of course. It’s possible my tree of life will light up in a similar way at some point in the future, as it has in the past, but more likely the next time I pass it, it’ll be completely different. The conkers are unique, that moment – all be it somewhat staged – is gone for ever, but we can say the same for any image – even that gormless one of you propping up the Tower of Pisa.

But we may be on to something here, the power of an image lying in the unlikelihood of that moment ever occurring again, but it has to go beyond the mere documentary. The image has to touch the soul of the beholder in ways that to merely bear witness to that same event does not.

Food for thought, and happy snapping.

Thanks for listening.

Read Full Post »

canon g12

Browsing Instagram it strikes me there are two kinds of people. There are those who see the world around them, and there are those who see themselves. There are the selfies and the worldies. I think of myself as a worldie, but does that make me any less narcissistic than the selfie?

Had I more youth and muscle and hair, I’d probably show off a bit, post myself atop Napes Needle, hands on head, balancing on one leg for all to go: Gorrrr-blimeee look at i’m! I too might have been an insta-fool, for sure!

But to become self aware is to disappear from the frame, rather than the alternative, which is more of an attempt to confirm our existence, and its validity, to say nothing of its coolness, as evidenced by our goofy grinning visage superimposed upon whatever monumental backdrop we find most impressive. But what is it that impresses us about an event or a scene? And why do we have to be pictured in it? It’s obvious we were there, because we remember it and took the photograph, so who else are we trying to impress by squeezing ourselves into shot as well?

As a young man I lugged a 35mm Single Lens Reflex camera up every peak in the Lake District, bar few. I was proving something to myself, walking, mostly alone, a reticent, anxiety prone individual, bluffing his way up the big beasts and around the classic routes. I have all those expeditions recorded and painstakingly labelled for posterity on Kodachrome slides. But they moulder slowly in dusty boxes now, and are rarely viewed. Memory then becomes the favoured means of ready recollection, blurred somewhat by internal and unconscious bias. So much for lugging all that weight up all those hills!

I’ve never been photographed, or taken photographs in China, because I’ve never been there. The memories are lacking because they don’t exist, but if they did, how secure would they be in the hands of old age anyway? How important are those neglected shots on ancient hard drives or buried deep in the sedimentary layers of Instagram?

Apparently, not much.

The evidence of our true presence in the world is more than skin deep; it doesn’t matter if you know I’ve been to China or to the top of Ben Nevis, or not. The evidence of a life’s experience can be measured only in terms of its effect upon the psyche, and the development of individual, and such things are glacially slow in their effect – hardly the work of an instant. In these terms then, most photographs of faces in the scene tell us nothing.

I see tourists armed with video recording equipment, capturing every last moment of a visit, too busy with the recording of it to pay much heed to the visit itself. Thus the experience becomes that of recording, rather than of being. The recording is a record of itself and, like in a hall of mirrors, vanishes off into infinite oblivion.

Why do we camera bearers think it so important to get the shot? Is it really just to impress our friends? Surely, there’s more! After all, there are images that are immediately arresting, hold us in profound stillness, humble us, make us think! But is it worth all that effort and a million snaps of crazy cats and goofy grins, for that one meaningful image to emerge from an otherwise dull collection?

I suppose it must be. It’s what the pros can pull off, if not with ease, then at least more often than the rest of us. And that’s why I persevere with, and why I love my cameras.

Read Full Post »

you are being watchedIn George Orwell’s famously dystopic novel, 1984, we find the hero, Winston, living in a society where everyone must conform to a set of essentially inhuman values, their obedience monitored by an all-pervasive surveillance machinery. Failure to conform to the “collective message” results in corrective torture, or death.

Winston is disturbed to find himself subject to the repeated scrutiny of a mysterious young woman. Such is the endemic paranoia of this society, Winston jumps to the only reasonable conclusion: he’s in trouble, and the woman, Julia, is an agent of the state, trying to catch him out.

In fact, Julia is simply in love with him.

With the misunderstanding cleared up, Winston and Julia begin an affair, but in being together, and in loving one another, they neglect their overriding love of “Big Brother”. The story then unfolds in a compellingly unpleasant way, both Winston and Julia being arrested, their humanity stripped from them, their love broken by corrective torture, and their love for big brother restored to its primacy.

There’s a lot in 1984, but one of the messages for me was the danger of relying upon society alone in defining one’s personal values – that obedience to the law, without also a sense of our personal responsibility towards each other as compassionate human beings, is indeed the road to a dystopic future. It’s this sense of compassion that must come first, and only when it’s failed, does the law provide a fallback and prevent us from sliding into anarchy.

But societies are not imposed upon us by aliens from outer space. They are conceived of by people like you and me, each of us doing the things we think are right at the time. And for this reason it’s important we’re never afraid of what we think or say or do, for then we end up saying or thinking or doing only those things we imagine we’re permitted to say or think or do. And suddenly you have a world in which both the individual and society meet on terms that are mutually delusional. Again, that’s the road to a dystopic future. It need not be imposed, it can happen as the result of a misunderstanding.

I’ve written before about the plethora of surveillance cameras in our towns and cities. When you see them, you can’t help but think of the visiphones of 1984. The effect of both overt and covert surveillance is insidious – not simply on account of the data we imagine might or might not be accumulating on our every move, but because the Cyclops machines make us think differently about ourselves, about the world, and our place in it.

I came to this conclusion when I realised surveillance isn’t restricted to our urban areas. I was out walking in the countryside and came upon this rather striking “You Are Being Watched” notice pinned to a telegraph pole. It was next to a meadow that has lain fallow for years. Its purpose eluded me. There was another, further on, pinned to a gate.

Was this a warning to would be farm-thieves who might be thinking of making off with combine harvesters and tractors? Or might it have been a warning to keep to the path, to keep out of the field? I’m not sure. The warning was ambiguous, and one was tempted to fill in the gaps, to imagine all sorts of creepy scenarios. Who was watching? And why were they watching me? Were there tiny cameras hidden in the trees? Was there a spotter drone circling overhead? I rather doubted it. But the impression given was that I’d better behave myself, or something bad would happen. My son was even nervous about me taking a photograph of the sign in case I was seen on that secret camera and an armed response unit suddenly dropped from the sky – because I was behaving suspiciously, and lacked due respect for “the message”.

We imagine this massive machine with a million eyes, like the visiphones of 1984. But it’s not real. As well as instilling an irrational guilt into the general population, it does something else, much worse – it robs us of our self reliance, it makes us abdicate responsibility for what goes on in society to this mysterious “authority” with its network of all-seeing visiphone eyes. But just because there’s a camera looking at you, it doesn’t mean there’s anyone at the other end scrutinising the data coming out of it. I might have stepped back into the path of a passing tractor being driven off at speed by farm thieves, been knocked to the ground and left there bleeding. But it’s very unlikely the incident would have been captured in real-time, and an ambulance dispatched to my aid by alarmed “security officials”. The images might have been available for inspection at some point in an effort to identify the miscreant, but for now I’m lying in the road and thinking to myself if someone’s really watching, then why aren’t they helping me?

The message of surveillance is you’re being watched. Sure. But so what? Don’t let it poison you. Don’t let it get to the stage where, like poor Winston, the next time you see a person watching you, your assumption is that you’re about to be carried away in the middle of the night to your personal room 101. That person might just be in love with you, and it would be a shame if your paranoia had you passing up on such a wonderful opportunity to express your humanity.


Let’s not forget to love one another first, and never mind Big Brother.

Read Full Post »