Her is an interesting and thought-provoking piece from one of our writers, Bari Sparshott, a piece he wrote especially for The Moving Dragon Writes;

On One Hand…

I have been taking and making photographs for sixty years now; ever since my dad passed down his old Kodak “folding camera” to me one Christmas. This item was in the form of a flattish box about 20cms by 8cms by 3cms, with rounded ends. On one side, a small red window could be seen, set off to one side; on the other, a round knob, which could be turned to enable a flap to be raised, which revealed a lens mounted on a plate, which moved outwards on rails fixed to the inside of the flap; and a black fabric tapering concertina structure, joining it to the main body of the camera. At one side of the lens plate was a metal item which was the shutter control. On the other side was a strange triangular device which swivelled through 90 degrees. This was the viewfinder, of which more later. At the top corner of the body was a knob, which would prove to be the means by which the film was advanced. At the opposite and bottom corner was yet another knob, which enabled the camera to be opened, and a fresh, unexposed film loaded.

For people who have been brought up in the digital age this must all seem arcane at best, gobbledygook at worst. What follows is even more complex. Films, or more precisely roll films, consisted of a length of cellulose covered in light-sensitive emulsion encircled by a thick paper backing, black on one side, and yellow on the other, the whole wrapped around a black  plastic spool. The yellow paper had printed along it lines of numbers;  1-8; 1-12; and 1-16. On opening the camera, you moved the empty spool that was already there to the other end of the camera. You then inserted your new film where it had been, and carefully threaded your new film into the old spool, winding it a bit to ensure gripping. Now you close the camera, and continue turning the film advance until the number “1” appears in the little red window. You are now ready to take a photograph, or “make a photograph”, as some say.

The viewfinder? Oh, yes. This triangular structure contains a glass screen on one side, and a small mirror on the hypotenuse. It swivels, so that you can take portraits (vertical format) or landscapes in a horizontal format. And now?

To take a picture, you hold the camera against your stomach, and gaze into the viewfinder at your subject. It will take a while to find to start with, as it is a very small image, about 1.5cms square. Having found it, you guess how faraway it is, and move the lens plate back or forwards along the rails. You have no real idea whether your picture will be in focus or not, to be honest. If your subject is a landscape, then you will have to turn the camera through 90 degrees, which is why the viewfinder swivels. The shutter speed was fixed, usually about 1/60 of a sec, the aperture too, so you really are in the lap of the gods. Breathe out, and calmly press the shutter. You have taken a picture! Remember to advance the film to number 2, otherwise you will get a double-image. Rarely desirable.

When you have taken, in this case, all eight shots, wind the film off its spool to the original one, and, in as much dark as you can find, open the camera back, remove the film, and stick the backing paper to itself so that the film is protected from the light. Now begins part 2 of the ritual.

There were many enthusiastic and competent amateur photographers in the 1950s, who processed their own films, and made prints from them You are not yet one of these, so you will take it to your local chemist’s shop. In the fullness of time, usually a week, but could be more, you will return, and after handing over the equivalent of 10p, you will go home with a paper wallet containing eight black and white prints, about 6cms by 8cms each, and some strange lengths of plastic with a reverse image of your pictures on. These are called negatives, and are actually more important than your positive prints, because if you lose a print, you can always get another from that negative. If you lose the negative—-hard luck!

I went out with my digital camera the other day. It has no film—instead a piece of electronic hardware called a card. The viewfinder enabled me to see my subject at eye-level, not down by my abdomen.  Pictures?  8? 12? 16? No!! Anything up to 200, depending on the amount of memory in the  card. Processing? Not much. Upload photos from card into computer. Pictures a bit dim, (or “under-exposed” as we call it?) Compensate with a Photo programme in the computer. Over-exposed? (too light)—ditto. It’s all so much easier; no fuss, immediate results, colour is standard, Print selected items on your own printer at home, in the light. Cameras are getting smaller all the time, to the extent that many fine pictures are now being taken on mobile phones, using the Camera app. Wonderful, isn’t it?

No. When you only had a limited number of shots, (and even on 35mm film, the most you could get was 36,) you had to be discriminating in what you photographed. This meant looking at things first, sometimes for a long period of time, as you waited for the light to be right, or for that dear old lady to stop  feeding the ducks, right in front of the statue you’re trying to photograph. Is there a better angle? All kinds of decisions have to be made. And then——-the film has to be developed, and prints made from the resultant negatives in your hastily created darkroom, usually a bathroom with old blackout curtains hung over door and window, and a red safety light to enable you  to see what you are doing. Then comes the skill of printing—contact sheets, test-strips, burning, dodging, washing, fixing and toning if necessary. The mastery of the enlarger was acquired through experience.

Digital photography has had a blinding effect on people’s vision and experience. They wander around, cameras attached to their face, or held out in front of them, like some sacred relic, firing away, and not looking at what’s in front of them. “We’ll look at it when we get home” seems to be the attitude. But you can’t do that, because you are no longer there, in the context of the picture you took, at the time you took it, and all that went with it. Then there is the moronic practice of “the selfie”, a procedure whereby the most important part of the picture is the “photographer” him or herself. The setting, be it the Grand Canyon, St Peters Rome, or the Temples of Angkor Wat are irrelevant to the fact that the “snapper” is there.

Last year I was at the 9/11 Memorial in New York, a work of unique power and simplicity. Around the edge are the names of the 4000+ people who died as a result of religious bigotry. Obviously I was not alone, and many , many people responded with a quiet reverence for what these two holes in the ground represented and commemorated. Unfortunately, the imbeciles were present too, standing in front of the edifices with their “selfie sticks” and juvenile remarks, which they were then “sharing” with all their friends world-wide through Facebook and Instagram. “Look at me, guys! I’m a pillock, here at Auschwitz!”

They couldn’t have done that with an old film camera……..but then, photography put a lot of artists out of work, 150 years ago, and think how upset William Morris was!

Copywrite © Bari W. Sparshott 2016


2 thoughts on “On One Hand…

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