History

Photography Revisited

I may as well confess it now: I used to be chemically dependent in the ņeighties. I did Microphen, Perceptol, ID-11, Hypam - that kind of stuff. I tried them all. And at one stage I was quite a heavy user of FP4 and HP5; often I would buy in bulk and cut it myself. I eventually moved on to the hard stuff, like Uranium Intensifier and raw hypo. It was getting scary. Then, of course, there was all the gear.

I re-discovered it all in one of those turn-of-the-millenium reorganisations, scattered in various boxes and drawers, unused for over a decade. So much equipment, so little photography. But like archeologists digging for Roman remains, the attic excavations quickly revealed relics of an earlier period, a Russian invasion during my adolescence. The Soviet Union had been desperate for Western currency, and found that they could make SLR cameras them very cheaply (I am guessing that their labour costs were aggressively low). So for about 40 quid you gould get a Zenith E and it was be the most expensive thing I had ever bought, but it was a real SLR. Through the viewfinder you could see a plain ground glass screen, your own private viewing screen with live pictures from the world outside, whilst you inhaled the smell of the real leather case.

The world presented in the viewfinder was actually quite a limited one, being essentially oneņs own back garden, and the possibilities of the 50mm lens were quickly exhausted. The Zenith was too bulky and expensive to carry around routinely. I remembered my childhood photography as an adventure exploring the boundariess of photographic technique. But the evidence told a different story. A paltry 10 rolls worth of 35mm negatives were the total output of this phase, mostly underexposed shots of balls dropping into bowls of water (at the 1/500 sec maximum shutter speed) and various people I no longer recognise on horses. The knurled and turned components of the Zenith gave an impression of precision engineering, but sadly the negatives told a different story.

The processing also fell far short of professional standards. For financial reasons I was compelled to use out-of-date paper stock which was usually fogged. The blackout in the garage was also far from perfect. A very old enlarger gave satisfactory results when the lens was substituted with the 50mm lens from the Zenith. The mount was a piece of aluminium with a hole into which the screw fit lens was self-tapped by brute force. Once or twice it came crashing down onto the enlarger plinth.

As childhood came to an end the desire for a more compact camera with a more reliable pedigree led me to buy a Rollei 35 LED. This was a great little camera, which I still occasionaly use. It is about the same size as a modern compact, although not quite as automatic. It has a simple light-meter, a viewfinder and manual shutter speed and aperture. To focus, you guess how far away the subject is and set the distance on the focussing ring. This tided me over the first wilderness period until the mid-eighties.

Male Jewelry

Going to university marked the end of any photographic activity. This despite the existence of an active photographic club with extensive equipment, and a number of friends who were interested in photography. I have no idea why I wasnņt interested at this stage. Perhaps I was embarrassed about the Zenith, or maybe I knew deep down that I wasnņt a very good photographer. It wasnņt until about a decade later that I began to notice the expensive looking SLRs around almost every male neck, and none of them were Zeniths. The big names were Nikon, Pentax, Minolta and of course Olympus plus the occasional Canon. SLRs were big business - you could even buy them in Boots the chemist; they were described by Lord Snowdon as "male jewelery".

So I chose an OM40, in black. Actually in those days all cameras were black. It had program mode, automatic and fully manual, all referring to the metering. The focussing was manual of course. Later I managed to find a medium wide angle zoom, 35-100mm., I think, which would just fit inside the ever-ready case. It was not very expensive and made by one of the large number of after-market lens makers who were around at that time. And for several years thatņs what I used. When I was a bit more flush I bought a second body secondhand, an OM30. Then a third-party 24mm. wide angle. Then an OM2 with a superb 28mm medium wide angle lens. And so it went on. New enlarger, new darkroom kit. But the workload which produced the flush also denied me the time and opportunity to use all this gear. It was the little Rollei that went in my briefcase and travelled around the world with me, not the growing army of SLRs.

Then Olympus began to lose interest in SLRs, and so, for a while, did I. The truth of the matter was that spending ten minutes in a darkened room to produce a black-and-white print was bad enough. Moving to colour seemed to increase the time and effort by an order of magnitude. It was difficult to justify, and would probably remain that way until digital arrived at the mass market at the end of the millenium. To a comparitively young man in the nineteen-eighties that seemed a lifetime away.

So there I was at the dawn of the digital age of photography, surveying the accretions of an eighties enthusiast with more money than time or talent. Surely this stuff would be worthless in the next few years so it might be an idea to get rid of it. Same with the darkroom stuff. An enlarger and all the associated equipment. No less than 5 Olympus OM SLR bodies (2xOM40, OM10, OM30, OM2n). Three standard 50mm Olympus lenses and a 28mm, and assorted third party zooms and a 24mm Sigma wide.

I went to the local camera shop to sell all the gear, this being before the era of eBay. I ended up selling the darkroom equipment, the OM30 and some of the lesser lenses for a trade-in credit note. I then redeemed most of it for a second-hand Olympus 200mm f4 telephoto. Oh dear. It was starting again.