The world of the camera
I’ve always been fascinated at the way an inanimate object is able to capture a moment, creating evidence of a memory – a birthday, a holiday, a pet’s antics, a growing child or an ageing parent. While these memories are embedded in our minds, there is nothing like a photograph to breathe life back into them, time after time. A friend whose wife had travelled just once in Europe regularly found her paging through her trip album, and asked the same question every time: “A you travelling again?” to which she always responded “Yes, my love. Europe is so beautiful.”
I well remember standing in blinding sunlight on Margate beach in the early 1960s, armed with a bulky “box” camera that I’d borrowed from my mother, taking photos of my hosts as they did the things that up-country holidaymakers did at the seaside. There were just eight exposures on a “spool,” and each one had to be a prizewinner. Those photos no longer exist, but if they did, they would transport me back to that strip of sand, along with a nearly tangible recollection of the time and place, the people, the fun, the emotions and the undiluted enjoyment, all to be enjoyed anew every time I’d view the faded, discoloured prints. Photographs have a power that lifts the past to the surface of our minds, probably for as long as we live.
The days of carefully rewinding the spool in the box camera and eagerly delivering it to the local chemist shop to be sent for “developing” had their own charm. Who can forget the anticipation as the ten-day wait for results snailed by, and the excitement on being handed the sturdy envelope by the white clad assistant in the shop? This was followed by the scramble to get home and pop the cork of this tiny stack of new memories and the ritual family gathering with all the oohs and aaahs as the past reappeared on the dining room table.
For several decades the state of the art in photography processing took the form of the 1-hour service, available in a wide variety of shops, most completely unrelated to the art. Spools were now available in twelve, twenty-four or thirty-six exposure formats with the world of instant gratification embracing the camera and its operator. Colour processing became so common that black-and-white became passé. Lens quality had improved to the extent that substantial enlargements could be made of thirty-five millimetre negatives.
The industry of photography has grown and evolved over the years since the original shoe box with a pinhole, becoming ever more complex while also producing equipment and systems that would enable the taking of images that had previously belonged only in the minds of dreamers. Few foresaw the ability to photograph the eye of an insect in spectacular detail, or landscapes and portraits that looked far better than reality. Almost no-one anticipated the advent of filmless photography along with the ability to alter and edit what the camera had seen into images that bore little resemblance to the originals. Who could have foretold the day when there would be few people of all walks of life who didn’t have a mobile phone that was capable of taking excellent photos, when many would be equipped with pocket-sized with devices that could house and display in crystal clear detail an album of photographs that just a few years before would have filled a pantechnicon?
Massive industries disappeared as demand for their products vanished, while others were spawned to supply the changed market with the very different day-to-day needs of the photographer. The whole style of photography changed course with the introduction of digital imagery, and no longer was it necessary to make every exposure count. Where I’d stood on Margate beach and taken eight photos some fifty years ago, I’d now take a few hundred, knowing that the days of the cash register tinkling every time the shutter button was pressed were over. We’d entered the world of the throw-away society, but at least there’d be no litter or pollution resulting. The “delete” button assumed an important role in the lives of the new age photographers.
The sight of a photographer with a black cape over his head as he peered through the viewfinder of the huge box on a tripod, chemical flash held aloft in his free hand or by an assistant has been replaced by that of millions of people of all ages brandishing mobile phones or tablets to record events that would never before have attracted the attention of a photographer. This is the fruition of throwaway photography as very few of those images will be retained except by negligence. The art has sometimes become the tool of criminals and scammers due to its infinite availability, leading to a plethora of social ills and fears with parents fearing for their children’s wellbeing, reporting of false news leading to widespread anxiety and unrest, scenes of cruelty and barbarity and the evil doings of mankind. Never before have we been able to view images of sporting or other functions anywhere in the world on our monitors within minutes of the photograph being taken. The face of photography has changed forever.
And yet some of the former values remain. A strong and growing group has turned back to film, believing this to be the pure art, and that some aspects of film photography are superior to those of digital. A visit to the store obtains for anyone a serious level of photography technology, and the number of photographers has grown exponentially. Many, varied and often contradictory are the beliefs and opinions among them regarding the quality of equipment and results as newer and sometimes better models are released by manufacturers, and billions of dollars are spent annually on the perceived need to own the latest technology.
But here and there, amid all this change and turmoil, are those who quietly go about the business of taking photographs, having to cement a place in the industry that shrinks daily due to the proliferation of easy options. It’s the way of the world, and their only option is to prove their work to be of a better quality than that achieved by the casuals. There is no point in railing against the easy options – they are here to stay, and will probably become easier with improved technical functions. It’s a hugely dynamic field, changing its complexion almost daily. The challenge is make the most of what’s available.
Did I start out saying that the camera is inanimate? I was wrong. It’s the extension of the photographer’s eye and mind, setting him or her free to perform acts of pure magic.
Nola and Doug.