Wednesday, March 14th 2012
The first time I handled a camera I must have been 4 or 5 years old. I say “handled” because I didn’t take any photographs with it, though another family member was to use it later with some success.
I was ill at the time and confined to the house and my mother gave me the camera so as to keep me occupied for a while. I suspect it originally belonged to my father and hadn’t been used or even brought out of the cupboard from his death until it was placed in my hands as a plaything.
It resembled a flat box and could have been slipped into your pocket, assuming you had a big pocket with a robust lining. There was a sort of lid that you could pull open and when you did so, out came the lens and viewfinder attached to the box by hinged rods and a bellows. I believe this wonderful thing was made by Kodak.
The controls were grouped around the lens together with the lever that operated the shutter. The viewfinder was a cube shaped object in which you could see a miniature representation of the scene that you were pointing the camera at. I didn’t understand what the controls were for but would operate the lever to see the shutter wink at me.
I think if you were to find that camera today, still in working condition, it would be considered an antique, the sort of thing enthusiasts save up their money to buy at antiques fairs. It was later taken over by an adult member of the family who used it for serious photography until he could afford a more advanced camera. I have no idea what happened to it subsequently.
A few years later, I was given the first camera with which I actually took photographs. It was given to me by a woman who lodged in our house. Everyone called her “Boots” and that’s the only name I ever knew her by.
She lived on her own and had a room in our house. She worked in a hospital but at what I do not know. She was not a nurse so perhaps she worked in the administration. Boots was very fond of me and I of her and she often played with me though I think that my mother for some reason did not entirely approve of her. I was too young to understand why that might be and didn’t care. I liked Boots and that was that.
The camera was old and the outside was worn with use but that didn’t matter because it worked and took real photos! It was shaped like a box and was black in colour. The lens was in the middle of one of the faces and both the focus and exposure were fixed. It was the archetypal “point-and-shoot” camera. In one corner was the viewfinder, like a small window. When you rotated the camera to get a landscape rather than portrait configuration, there was a second window with which to look through the viewfinder.
The camera took roll film with 8 exposures. The pictures were quite big so you only needed to pay for enlargements for special pictures. For the rest, contact prints were good enough. As long as there was plenty of light and the subject wasn’t too close to the camera, you got a reasonably good result. Photos from it still reside in the family photo album in my sister’s house in Canada.
If you are used to blasting away with a digital camera, just think for a moment what it would be like to be restricted to 8 pictures at a time. You could change the film, of course, but films cost money and so did processing them. This made you parsimonious in their use.
When you put a new film in the camera, you first had to remember to move the empty spool, left from the previous film, to the take-up position where it could be turned from outside with a handle. You then put the new film into the slot vacated by the old spool, pulled the end of it paper backing carefully across the lens and tucked the end into the empty spool. You gave this a couple of turns to make sure it was securely anchored and then you closed up the camera.
The next job was to wind the film into position. There was a tiny round window of dark glass allowing you to see the film’s paper backing. As you wound this forwards, printed characters would slide past the window then a row of pointing hands would appear. This signalled the approach of the numeral ’1′. When this came into the window, you were ready to take your first photo.
I was taught always to wind the film on immediately after taking a photo. If you didn’t do this, you might accidentally take another photo on the same section of film, resulting in a double exposure. To take a photo, you had to slide the shutter-release lever. This moved quite a way and made a satisfying clunk. You moved it one way for the first photo, back again for the second photo and so on. Despite using the camera for a number of years, I can’t tell you what make it was.
When we went on holiday to stay with my sister (who was still living in various parts of England in those days), the two things I always made sure to take with me were my camera and my tortoise. The tortoise was called André, after a character I liked in a Children’s Hour serial on radio. He travelled in a haversack stuffed with straw. I remember once taking him out during a journey by coach, much to the surprise and no little interest of other passengers.
Strangely enough, I don’t think I ever took any photos of André. Even today, when I see a field or garden full of golden dandelion flowers I think of André because I used to collect them for him to eat. Next to strawberries, they were his favourite food. I finally parted company with André when we left Brighton and moved to Gloucestershire. The garden in the new house was not enclosed and we knew he would wander away. So he went to live with a neighbour in Brighton and our paths never crossed again.