Mike Johnston, who writes the Online photographer blog, has asked his readers to send in pictures of their favourite cameras. I expect to see gorgeous photographs of shiny chrome and dazzling glass. Camera porn.
Since I bought my first camera at the age of ten I have owned about two dozen cameras of various brands—Bolex, Cambo, Canon, Graphic, Kodak, Linhof, Olympus, Pentax. Every one of those cameras was a careful choice, and I liked every one of them. Too many favourites.
So I have chosen to send Mike a photo in which the camera is incidental, a minor detail. I had a long and productive partnership with that camera but it’s the story that matters, not the object.
When I studied architecture at the University of Queensland the course was a minimum of five years of full-time study, plus a year out after the third year. Students were required to work in architect’s offices for that year, or gain other useful experience. 1972 was my year out, and I spent most of it travelling. I hitch-hiked from Brisbane to Darwin, took a short plane flight to Timor Leste (Portugese Timor as it was called then), along the chain of Indonesian islands and on through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, by plane from Bangkok to Calcutta, then on the ground through India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, and by ferry to England (where I worked in an architect’s office).
My aim was to learn how to travel, and my method was to have the least possible insulation between me and the place I was in and the people I was among—a challenge for a shy introvert. To record the experience I had my Pentax Spotmatic 35mm SLR camera, with 50mm and 135mm prime lenses.
I was imbued with ideas about documentary photography that I had absorbed from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt. The work I admired, and aspired to do, caught the decisive moment and had a satisfying composition. To me this meant black and white pictures precisely framed in the camera and printed uncropped. Ah, the purity of youth. Before leaving I loaded 200 feet of Ilford HP4 bulk film into cassettes. It’s amazing now to think of travelling for eight months with a ration of about three dozen rolls of film, with 36 shots on each roll.
Prices for photographic equipment were low in Singapore, and I bought a wide-angle lens there, a 28mm SMC Takumar. The shot above is one I took while playing with the new lens in my downmarket hotel room.
Taking pictures as I travelled was a major project for me. I did a lot of thinking about what I was doing. I learned from the experience and from talking to people. Along the way I met travellers who had Nikons, cameras that were more robust and versatile than my smaller simpler Pentax. I got to fondle a few rangefinder Leicas too—exquisite machines—but I never did take to those viewfinders. I daydreamed of getting a Nikon F with a battery of lenses.
A formative experience was a three-day train journey from Teheran to Istanbul. On that train I met Jiro Mochizuki, a Japanese photographer who was heading back to his home in Paris after spending some months photographing in Afghanistan. We had time to talk, and I quizzed him about the way he worked. He carried a basic kit of equipment to process his black and white negatives wherever he was. While he was working, every evening he developed his film, so he could assess the day’s work before he set out the next day. It struck me that this was the way to get immediate feedback and improvement—I was also impressed with the labour that went into setting up a rudimentary film processing lab in places without clean running water. My dreams turned to the subject of a darkroom.
When Jiro showed me his cameras I had another revelation. He had a pair of battered Pentaxes, with black gaffer tape stuck over the shiny parts. These were tools for work, not objects for sensuous fondling. If those Pentaxes stood up to the use he gave them, I should be happy with what I had. And so I was, until more than ten years later when my Pentax was stolen and I replaced it with a Canon F-1.
When I got back to Australia in early ’73 I had to get back into studying. I bought an old caravan and made it into a darkroom that I shifted from place to place when I moved house. I processed the film from the trip and made contact proofs. I made a few prints then put that project aside. I had to get on with other things. Twenty years later I took another look at that body of work, but didn’t get very far. The task of assessing, editing and printing those negatives still awaits me.
So, what is my favourite camera? It doesn’t really matter. Other questions are more important.
In 1972, while I was getting ready to go travelling, my mother’s mother came to stay for a few weeks. Granny took an interest in my preparations. Together we reviewed the kit I had started to assemble—a sturdy canvas H-frame backpack with leather straps, homemade cloth bags with drawstring closures for organising the contents of the backpack, a down-filled japara sleeping bag, a pair of hiking boots, and so forth. I wanted to take only what I would need, and I wanted everything to be fit for purpose.
She asked me what socks I intended to take. I didn’t have an answer, but she did: I would need hand-knitted woollen socks, and she would make them. She specified the size of knitting needles she needed (a set of three, pointed on both ends) and the right kind of wool. Once she had these things she set about producing the socks, while we continued to talk.
My grandmother Vera Alice Nixon was born in Orbost in Victoria in 1894 so she was a young woman at the time of the Great War. She saw the young men of the district, and of her family, go off to the war. Some of them came home horribly damaged. And some never came back.
Vera had joined other women who knitted socks for the soldiers—an act of solidarity and support for the men. She told me about receiving a letter from a soldier at the front who was grateful for the socks, but who was troubled by the small stones that got inside his boots when he ran across rocky ground. Vera and her friends had the idea of adding a skirt attached to the sock just above the boot-top, which could be folded over the boot and stop those pesky stones getting in.
This fond memory was triggered when I came across a booklet of sock-knitting instructions in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales.
Two recent dealings with Australian companies have left a sweet taste in my mouth, and a feeling that there are still some businesses that stand behind their products.
Some years ago my sister gave me a Blunt umbrella, so called because it does not have the usual sharp points at the ends of its ribs. It’s the best umbrella I have ever used, even in a strong wind—something to do with its origin in breezy New Zealand.
I was surprised when some of the ribs detached from the hub. I emailed the company to ask about getting it repaired. I told them the umbrella was outside the warranty period (two years) and I asked how much they would charge to fix it. Don’t bother returning it, they said, we’ll just send you a new one. And they did. By express post.
I bought a second-hand Røde M3 microphone but I was not happy with the quality of the recordings I made with it. I wasn’t sure if it was faulty, or if I was the problem (always a possibility). I sent it back to Røde and asked them to test it and let me know if anything was wrong with it and, if so, to quote for repair. The Røde people told me the mic was faulty, and sent me a new one. With a ten year warranty. No charge.
A look-out on Christmas eve
For a greeting card this summer solstice I have chosen this wood engraving from 1866. It may prompt us to lift our minds up from the Christmas carols, Christmas shopping, Christmas presents, Christmas drinks, Christmas pudding—to spare a thought for (ahem) Christmas Island.
Oops, sorry. I’m not supposed to talk about politics or religion at a Christmas gathering. Let’s just enjoy the picture and the text. The scene was drawn by J A Pasquier, an obscure artist. His work, and the work of the even more obscure engraver who signed with a monogram on the bottom-right, is a morally-uplifting tale of devotion to duty, suitable for warming the hearts of respectable folk at Christmas time.
I’ll let the editor of the magazine explain what the picture is about:
At this season of the year, when wrecks are frequent around our stormy coasts, the men at the different life-boat stations, and others whose duty it is to watch for vessels in distress, are more than usually vigilant; and if the sun goes down in a lowering sky, with a tempestuous wind blowing landward, a good look-out is sure to be kept at all points where help or succour is likely to be needed. Our engraving on page 609 represents one of the curious lofty structures erected by the beachmen of Great Yarmouth to overlook the Scroby Sands and watch for signals in the roadstead. These “Look-outs,” as they are called, are six in number, and are each owned by a company of twelve beachmen, commanded by a captain, who also acts as cashier, and squares up all accounts at Christmas. Each company also possesses one or more yawls and other boats, in which the hardy beachmen are ever ready to brave the dangerous surf, and they frequently risk their lives in efforts to save ships and men. The beachmen of Yarmouth are a bold and gallant body, of whom many acts of bravery and endurance are recorded. Between the different companies a notable rivalry exists, which frequently leads to deeds of great daring, and sometimes gives rise to an exciting race, the goal being some stranded vessel, with its benumbed and perishing crew straining their eager eyes to catch a glimpse of their coming deliverers. All honour to the brave hearts who are looking out for the distressed at this blessed Christmas tide! and as we give a hearty “Good-night!” to the old fellow who is ascending the ladder with a supply of Christmas cheer for himself and his mates, let us hope that their night-watch may be disturbed by no worse sounds than the roar of the sea or the howling of the bitter wind.