Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Forgotten paths 

Every photo is unique in it’s way, but there’s a special piquancy about a photo that can’t ever be repeated because the world has moved on, especially when it has passed into a new era. Take the cranes lining the banks of the Thames (easier to see if you click the picture to enlarge it). Even 35 years ago when I took this photo they were mostly standing idle – the days of London as a thriving port were almost over, and one by one the docks and wharves were closing. Nowadays the cranes have long since gone. Some memories of the old port still remain though; although the riverside warehouses stood semi-derelict for a while, many have been reborn as character apartments for the well-heeled, and instead of cargo vessels plying their trade on the waterway, the Thames now carries water-taxis to take these new-style traders to their city offices.

Much else has changed in the intervening years, some of it for the better. (Aside: why should it feel so surprising, so unexpected, when change turns out to be positive?) Once, the pollution was so bad that hardly any fish survived and it was routine for anyone who was unfortunate enough to fall into the Thames to have their stomach pumped. Now however, salmon have returned to the river. And at about the time this photo was taken, the old London bridge built in 1831 was being dismantled stone by stone ready to be shipped over to the Arizona desert. The world moves on.

Sometimes old pathways are dug up, concreted over and towering new cities built over them; such roads can only thereafter be travelled in imagination, never again with feet. But sometimes the track of old pathways, although abandoned and neglected, can be found still, if you know where to look. Clear away the extraneous growth of the years and a way once forgotten may be revealed.

I never wanted to be a writer, never had that urge, never had those dreams. I didn’t not want to be one; the possibility simply never occurred to me. (I suppose in reality it still hasn’t…) So I was a little bemused to find myself in a circle of bloggers who clearly have a powerful drive to write, whose dreams are to write. I think there’s a point in the development of an idea, when that idea becomes sufficiently verbal that writing about it becomes possible. Until that point it’s a concept only, a glimpse of a shadow of a phantom. Most of my ideas never make it past that point. If they could, I’d like to write about them. But until they do, the words remain a struggle, reluctant to be dragged out of me.

But I’ve loved taking photos almost as long as my hands were capable of loading a roll of film and holding a camera steady. Like the Thames of the photo, my first camera , dating from my seventh birthday, belongs to a bygone era. With it’s black bakelite body and spools for 127 roll film it looks now like something you’d find in a museum. Following that came a Kodak Brownie 44A (a step up from the original Brownie) which was just good enough to start taking slides, and even got me a first place in a junior photographic competition.

By 14 I’d graduated to my first ‘proper’ 35mm camera – a secondhand Voigtlander Vito C, with which I took all the photos on this post. I still have all these old cameras; the oldest and simplest are still in working order although the shutter of the Voigtlander is stuck now. Some of my best photos were taken in those years and on that camera, which had manual everything, a separate hand-held exposure meter, and not a battery in sight.

This is another favourite from those years – the original slide (on Kodak Ektachrome 64 for anyone who is interested) has faded a bit now and needed some tweaking on the computer to restore the contrast, but this version is much as I remember it, a secret profile view from the wings of the stage as the star faces the audience assembled on Ludgate Hill:

As I went through school years, somewhere along the line I absorbed as though it were truth the fallacy that photography wasn’t academic, wasn’t a ‘proper’ job and was therefore in some way an inferior subject of serious study, as were all forms of art. Fine for a hobby, but not something for me to pursue as a career. Plus of course you had to be ‘artistic’, whatever that meant, and I believed I wasn’t. All complete bollocks of course, but what did I know then? So it remained as a passing interest only.

One vacation from university I even built my own black-and-white enlarger, using the bellows and lens from an old folding camera, and the condensing lenses – huge pieces of glass - and main lens from another ancient enlarger, both bought for pennies from jumble sales. I was very proud of that enlarger, especially the ventilation and light trapping in the lamp housing, built from a catering size tin of coffee. The design was entirely my own, created around the materials I had available – mostly scrap (see list below). I think the light bulb was the only thing I bought new. There’s a skill there I didn’t know at the time that I had – seeing the potential in materials, how they can be used together creatively.

But I digress. The point is that I loved photography but for years ignored it and let the pathway become overgrown, covered in weeds. Now I’m clearing away the weeds again, beginning to tread a path nearly abandoned for 30 years. Who knows, I may even be able to string some words together to go with the pictures.

As well as an awakening artistic desire, there’s cold logic behind this too. It doesn’t do me a lot of good to pine for the hills and mountains when they’re hundreds of miles away and I only get to spend a handful of days a year in their company. I need to find a more accessible way of nourishing my soul, and I think photography just might be it.

Oh yeah, that competition I won. One thing I forgot to mention – I was the only entrant… ;-)

Westminster, on the same day 35 years ago. No moored barges there these days…

Recipe for home-built enlarger
- part of old kitchen table top (Formica covered)
- length of scaffold pole
- shorter length of slightly larger diameter scaffold pole
- heavy duty foot from a ‘60/70s mainframe computer cabinet
- catering size coffee tin
- jam jar lid
- small aluminium aspirin tub
- various aluminium extrusion offcuts: H-section, T-section, U-section (every budding enlarger fabricator should always keep a selection of handy aluminium extrusion offcuts…)
- handle from an old rubber stamp
- odd shaped but useful looking brass block (small)
- control knob from old radio (large)
- various oddments of steel rod, aluminium sheet etc
- nuts, bolts, washers, self-tapping screws as located on floor, lying around on bench, kept in random assortments in tins, jars etc
- vital optics from ancient enlarger that looks old enough to have been powered by candles
- almost as ancient bellows camera, to provide focusing mechanism and shutter
- anything else lying around that has an interesting shape/finish and might look good when incorporated in the design

Take the above ingredients, a selection of hand tools, an impoverished student (aren’t they all..) with time on his hands, and a garden shed, mix together well, and wait...

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