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A HISTORY OF MY PHOTOGRAPHY IN SEVEN CAMERAS

BOX BROWNIE

The first photo I can find that I definitely took is of my much loved pet mouse. Its too low in the frame and out of focus, but it wasn’t my fault. It was taken with my parents Box Brownie, and a combination of parallax error (look it up) and very limited focussing abilities spoiled the shot. Aged around six I realized that its okay for a bad workman to blame his Dad's tools, although he wasn’t that forgiving as rather than take ‘just one’ it appears I blasted off a whole roll on the fidgety black and very blurry rodent.

By the time I was ten I had ‘inherited’ this family treasure and customised it by adding the World Intelligence Network badge that its case still wears to this day. (For those of you unfortunate not to have been children of the sixties, WIN was the organisation behind the puppet uber-geek Joe 90, one of Gerry Anderson's less legendary creations).

Soon afterwards I took my first ‘great picture’. As you can see . . . it was an accident. I was trying to frame the Peacock, my sister wanted to be in the composition, but I said ‘no’ and the row that developed was immortalised. Actually I wish I could say that I set it up as I feel that it displays at least a hint of the current fashion for obviously contrived photojournalism.

I blindly persevered with the BB whenever my folks were flush enough to allow me to flush some ‘very expensive’ film down the Boots processing drain but can't claim any more early signs of success.

 

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Box Brownie Camera
Of course Joe 90 wouldn’t have had one of these, that spoiled brat would have had a specially developed Leica.

POLAROID

Around 1974 someone gave the family a second-hand and very primitive plastic Polaroid camera. Wow! Instant pictures! The science of the space race had landed in suburban Southampton and I was smitten. I took ownership of this marvel and constantly begged for packs of film.

I also recall the birth of ‘Obsessive Equipment Disorder’ as I meticulously picked the rollers clean and polished the lens in a vain attempt to make the images sharper. To no avail, except that this nasty gadget produced my personally most important picture, the one I’d grab as the house burned, the item at the core of my sparsely sentimental inner sanctum of sentimental stuff. It's badly faded now but it shows me with my first Kestrel in the summer of 1975. I had stolen the bird from a nest and trained it, I gave it all of my heart and tragically it died at the onset of winter.

The legacy of this brief encounter lives on and this is the only picture I have of the two of us together – the most priceless Polaroid on my earth.

 


Box Brownie Camera
Little sister versus the Peacock. Let's call it a retrospective draw.

ZENITH E SLR

Post Kestrel I had become a swotty young scientist and had begun to ‘study rather than randomly observe wildlife' (pretension was germinating too!). I kept notes, meticulous journals and drew preposterously detailed maps defining the locations of birds nests and badger setts etc. My father probably realised that a ‘decent camera’ was becoming a necessary accessory to my fanatical data collection so he bought ‘himself’ a brand new Zenith E  and a selection of used lenses. Now, at the time these all manual and very basic rugged Russian cameras were quite well respected as an ‘entry level’ SLR and, to be fair, it provided a useful mechanism for me to grapple with the raw elements of photography. So, did I put it to good use? Did I produce any notable signs that some future lay in this practice?

Did I hell . . . I photographed ‘nest-trees’ and piles of Badger shit .

The former amount to a lamentably dull catalogue of pointless pictures of random trees of the seventies, (and I cant see a retro-classic in that), and the latter are unsurprisingly just shit. In black and white. Again the bad workman blamed his Dad because the assortment of glass wear didn’t include a telephoto of any kind, a very smooth and sharp Ashi Pentax 35mm, but nothing to make all those distant falcons fill the frame. Then one Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1976 he came home with a Photax 400mm lens - new, so matt black, so long and so obviously the answer to all my prayers. At dawn the next day we set off to some water-meadows near Winchester to just knock off some stunning photos of the Lapwings which always nested there. What transpired was total ‘Carry On’ and we returned home with half a roll of nothing. This became a familiar scenario and sorting through the wad of Supa-Snaps enprints that I still have reveals a horror show of wasted film .

To be fair the lens was a dog – manual focus, F-nothing and you had to stop it down manually after you had made a manual exposure, all before your subject had migrated or perhaps died. Yeah, that’s what it was all about in them days . . . I tried, in fact I cried, but I got nothing but the first bitter taste of total photographic frustration from this hateful imposter. However, the next spring I did get my first picture published; a little owl on a clutch of ten eggs,, taken with a flash into the nest hole as I balanced on my Dad's shoulders, which appeared on the cover of ‘The Gamekeeper and Countryman’ magazine.

I got paid too and I spent the money on the Clash’s first album which made it all the more poignant a moment.

 


Taken with a Zenith E SLR
It's going in the box with me when I go.

CANON A-1

There wasn’t exactly a photographic hiatus on account of punk rock as the young scientist spent even more time in the field but the pocket money had dried up and the meagre fruits of Saturday labour went on guitars and amps, not upgrading ‘that lens’. So it wasn’t until 1983, when the last chords were strummed from my Les Paul copy, that I sold the accumulated flotsam of band-ware and went immediately to Crawley to purchase the state of the art SLR of the age, the celebrated Canon A-1. This was it, finally the tool that would empower me to change the world - if I couldn’t re-write history through music then at least I could try to do it through taking ‘arty’ photographs of wildlife. Well, no one else seemed to be trying, they were all obsessing about the subject, getting it pin sharp in the centre of the frame, or dinning out on stories of the suffering they endured to get the shot. Bah humbug, and what a load of pants! I also bought a 500mm F8 mirror lens, a 100mm macro, a 70-210mm trombone zoom and a 28mm wide-angle and when I graduated from university I bought 36 rolls of Kodachrome 64 and set off to the south of France.

The failure rate was catastrophic, I got two pictures I liked, that were different and yet still not too far gone, and when I got home I decided that based upon this ‘success’ I’d stick with it. Thus I spent my dole money on film and fuel and drove my rusty Renault 16TL around the nature reserves of the UK, sleeping in hides, or in the car if I was thrown out, and rising before dawn to only press the shutter if I could justify that exposure expenditure of 68p a snap. I ate baked beans and custard out of cans and drank Lucozade. But it paid off.  In 1984 Creative Photography magazine printed a portfolio of my pictures in a special Wildlife supplement alongside work from Frans Lanting and David Maitland. I went mad with my technical and pictorial experimentation and shot a lot of work well outside the mainstream, way too avant garde for the conservatives who presided over this stale genre, and then in 1985 when Frans went to California I got a job as a presenter on The Really Wild Show and had to embrace all the distractions, good and bad, that ensued.

And the rest, as they say, ‘is history’. I think that for a long while he was undoubtedly the best, maybe still is, and it was a real pleasure to be re-acquainted with David last year when he won several prizes in the WPOY competition.

 


Taken with Canon F-1
Way too weird for the conservative world of wildlife photography in 1986 , this surreal set up got the thumbs down all round.

CANON F-1

Presenting was fine, often fun, but making TV programmes will always be a compromise whereas making pictures remains integrally personal. This is why it has always been my primary creative passion.  I remember getting the train down to the London Camera Exchange in Bournemouth in 1988 where I did a part exchange for a Rollieflex and a pile of hard earned notes for a pretty tatty F-1. After initially enjoying all the much lauded red flashing LED wizardry of the A-1, I had realised that in fact I wanted control over everything I was doing, particularly in camera, and thus I had disabled most of its automatic functions and was using it as I had the old Zenith.

It also wasn’t terribly well protected from the elements and had started bickering with me a couple of times in the wet. Thus I went ‘up and back’ to Canons all but manual pro-workhorse which also had better metering and greater reliability in weather. I dropped my bag once slip-sliding across a slimey log and it fell, and submerged, into  salt water. The camera was soaked but, after I’d junked the film and removed the batteries, I washed it off in the bath and dried it in the oven. It was working perfectly again that evening. I bought a winder and then treated myself to a slightly newer model the F-1N which I got mint’n’boxed’ from some scallie who I’ve always reckoned had nicked it .

Unbelievably I sort of ‘dropped’ and scratched it the very next day, but when the tears had dried I never looked back and still rate it as one of the better cameras I’ve had. Soon after I also got a 400mm F4 and a X2 converter which made a great difference as I’d grown bored of the 500 mirrors out of focus ‘donuts’ and the restrictive nature of its fixed aperture.

I carried on sleeping in the car though, a somewhat less comfortable Renault 5 GTL in a pleasing scheme of Blue, white and pink, with occasional orange dots, but my girlfriend had been replaced by a far more reliable Benbo tripod with a Manfrotto ball and socket head.

Ooooh, so unkind!


Taken with Canon F-1
My ‘big break’ came when this simple change of perspective and camera position won a few prizes in the late eighties, shot in the driveway and not in the Serengeti, which pleased me.







CANON EOS 1

So whilst I became an apostle preaching from the manual mantra, the rest of the world moved on to auto-this-and-that. Undeterred by the ‘hype’ I stuck my head deep into the notion that the ‘manual way was the only true way’ and that such fripperies were the ‘devils playthings’, ‘distractions that would lead the unwary from the sacred path of creativity’ . . . or some such crap. Then whilst filming a Channel Four series I made entitled ‘Wildshots’ Canon loaned me an EOS 1 body and I took it off to the Bass Rock where we were shooting a sequence with the Gannets. It was the top-end pro’ auto-focus jobbie, with plenty of extras besides, and certainly light years ahead of my own aged kit. There was plenty of wind coming over the cliff top and the birds were hanging there posing against the clear blue sky and I distinctly recall pointing the centre spot in the view finder on a Gannets eye and gasping with delight as it snapped into focus and I gathered the first of many pin-sharp portraits.

I had bought two used ones by the time we had finished the programmes and they were superb. Of course I used them on manual . . . well, not all manual, in fact I started shooting on shutter priority, with manual aperture control which is what I did for years. I now have more trust in the metering but still regularly tickle the aperture up and down ‘by hand’ to bracket a bit. But the auto-focus, both static and tracking, was a revelation when it came to fidgety wildlife – just imagine, even a six year old could get a mouse sharp using this stuff, and these days six year olds have this technology!

I kept the faith with film as digital became potentially accessible and indeed not having learned my Luddites lesson in life I went out and bought new, yes new, the most primitive but beautiful camera ever . . .

 






LEICA M6

Well, even then, in the late nineties, they had the name. They were the Rolex, the Aston Martin, the Chanel couture of cameras and that name was built on a famous heritage and a degree of snobbery as a result, but also on superb craftsmanship, simple un-cluttered and timeless design and lenses which had no earthy equal in terms of definition. Mine is black and with it sits a 17mm, a 55mm, a 90mm and 120mm lense. It is lovely and I have loved it but that infatuation came with a terrible cost, and I’m not talking financial, as I bought all the lenses second hand! I think to try to balance my leap forward with the EOS 1 I wanted to find the polar opposite in terms of technology and to master it, so that maybe I would stay sharp, remain fully connected with every last nuance of the picture making process and this wonderful photographic fossil was to be my vehicle. The trouble is . . . I got carried away. In fact in the end I stopped using my SLR altogether and travelled around with the rangefinder kit snugly tucked up and cosseted in a neat brown Billingham.

On the one hand I embraced its obvious limitations when it came to shooting wildlife, a bit like the way I had accepted those inherent with shooting my beloved, but so terribly slow, K64, but on the other I fought it and constantly tried to make it do what it couldn't. In the end the frankly wholesale failure to get anything respectable meant that it stayed in the bag. Which is where it is now, the most expensive skeleton in my equipment cupboard. And the true cost cannot ever be measured, because that is all those pictures I couldn’t get, missed, or simply messed up whilst I argued with this delectable icon.

Perhaps it's what it would be like having a supermodel as a girlfriend, great to have around your neck but next to useless when you need a result. Put it this way, our trial separation has worked .    

 






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