As I turned the lever with my thumb I realised something was amiss. You’d often get an extra frame or two if you were lucky at the end of a roll of 35mm film, but as I watched the dial-counter spin from 38 to 39, then – crank – 40, then – crank – 41, then – crank – 42, there was no doubt about it. I’d misloaded my film. A 36 frame roll should never ‘wind on’ quite this far.
It was a tricky procedure and I wasn’t very familiar with this type of camera. I’d just graduated from a Kodak 110 camera, a device shaped like an old pencil box, which was designed to take the film in the form of a foolproof little plastic cartridge, to my first SLR (single lens reflex), a Praktica (from the GDR) – a real “grown ups” camera. Initially I’d fancied myself as the next Tim Page or Robert Capa. A glorious career as a famed photojournalist at the National Geographic clearly beckoned. But after this particular mishap I’d never come to feel completely at ease with the fiddly technique required to thread the end tab of a roll of 35mm film onto the camera’s ‘take up spool.’ It was a crushing introduction to the world of “grown up’s” photography (I was sixteen at the time). Not least because that precious roll of film then stuck inside the camera had been loaded ahead of a holiday to Egypt from which I’d only just returned. In my mind I ran through all the images I could remember carefully framing – of yellow sandstone monuments, faience blue skies, green palm trees, white sail boats on the shimmering waters of the Nile, orange fire-red sunsets – all of these sights, these special memories, were utterly lost.
Well, maybe not completely lost. For the moment they remained etched vividly in my memory, but how long before those remembered images began to fade or start to get forgotten one by one? My despair was dampened by the advice that I should begin to twist the roll of film back into itself. That way, if there were any images at all, some of them might still be saved. I flipped up the little lever on the opposite side of the camera and began to wind, wind, wind, and wind ... It was hard to tell simply from the feel of it or even the noise, but – maybe it was simply my ever hopeful imagination – the lever did seem to be reeling something back in. I continued to twirl the little spool far longer than was probably necessary just to be sure before I flicked the catch and the back of the camera body sprung open. There was the roll of film all neatly wound back within itself. I dropped it off at the chemist and returned a few anxious days later to discover whether or not any of the images I still so vividly remembered taking had actually come out.
I handed my slip of paper over to the man on the other side of the window and after a moment of rummaging through a drawer he handed me a large blue envelope. I ripped it open and took out a slim packet of prints. Astonishingly the roll of film seemed to have slipped around halfway through; perhaps the camera had received a heftly jolt at some point, or, perhaps more likely, my tenuous threading had simply come unstuck with the continual pressure of winding the film on after each frame? Whatever had happened, evidently all was not lost.
As I flipped through the prints my heart, which only moments before had soared, was now in rapid freefall. Largely the prints were OK, but many were grainy, some too dark, some slightly out of focus, or the framing was a little skewed. The pin sharp memories I’d nurtured of each shot dissolved with the reality of looking at this half-salvaged handful of prints. Evidently I still had much to learn about the intricacies of lenses, f-stops, focal planes, depth of field, and camera wobble. Clearly this was technical stuff. And much like riding a bike it was something which had to be learned. At that moment I decided I hated machines.
But later on, after musing for a few days on this first photographic misadventure, I resolved not to give up. Philosophically I came to the conclusion that the best trip of my life so far wasn’t just about the photos – there was much more to the memories of that trip. It was a whole experience. There were sounds, smells, tastes, jokes, surprises, bemusements, mistranslations, camaraderie, sunburn – all sorts of experiences which I felt I’d never be able to forget. I’d written a journal during that holiday, in which, leafing back through its pages, I realised I had managed to record a myriad of things that no roll of 35mm film could ever capture. It made me wonder, what were these images after all? – Were they simply records and reminders to the self; a means of sharing one’s experiences with others who’d not been there; or validation, testament to the fact that I’d ‘been there, done that’? … Veni, vide, vici.
But still, I never gave up on photography. And there were two reasons for this: first, I come from a family of accomplished photographers (all of them far more accomplished than me), who were always unfailingly encouraging; and, second, because over time photography got immeasurably easier. When I say it got easier this is no reflection on my mechanical aptitude – I never did quite get to grip with f-stops, etc., but I did find the quality of the kit being used was key. That first camera had a lens I never really got on with; partly I think because of my poor eyesight, I always found it hard to focus this particular lens. A later set of lenses I used with my second proper SLR (a Nikon) were much easier to operate, and my first pictures using this camera were surprisingly good. The very first roll I shot on it was a real success – I took a series of photos of my brother and my (then) two year old nephew fooling around together on a visit to London Zoo. The Fuji film really brought out the greens of the weeping willow trees in the background which were nicely blurred out ‘in soft focus’ because of the use of a long zoom lens. I learnt from this and managed to get a similar effect when photographing a small statue in Tokyo a few years later.
To supplement my SLR, which at times could be quite unwieldy, I bought an Olympus electronic ‘instamatic’ camera which worked like a dream. It had auto-focus, which meant I could relax about my bad eyesight as the camera did all the necessary work for itself. I became very keen on black and white photography at this time – my Cartier-Bresson phase – and managed to do quite well with it using both my SLR and my little Olympus “point-and-shoot” camera. A small album of creditably arty black and white photos came into being.
I loved the grainy textures and the gradations of light. I loved the size and the smell of the little plastic 35mm film canisters. Popping the lid on a new roll was just as exciting as snapping the lid down on an exposed roll felt satisfying. I also loved the smell and feel as much as the look of real prints, and the way they aged too. I loved the smell, and just the atmosphere too, of my local camera shop. Photography was tactile, it was mechanical, it was creative and constructive. But it was always tinged with an element of chance. There was always that sense of fear and excitement at the unknown whilst waiting to collect a fresh roll of prints, particularly in those moments just before opening the packet for the first time – would they be any good?
There’s a lot to be said for experimenting. Sometimes good photographs are simply a matter of chance. One summer two friends and I were given a stack of free film and we resolved to use all of it with real abandon, just to see what would happen. Later, when we had the films processed, we weeded out the many dud shots (and there were many), but happily we found we were left with a sizeable stack of really good photos. That’s when I learnt not to be afraid of using the camera. You win, you lose; but in shooting off frames like that – without giving into any hesitation – you are bound to capture a few quality shots. We were mostly photographing people so that spontaneity was really key, and it paid off! … Of course, nowadays with digital cameras this is all much easier. You can happily snap away and then later on, at your leisure, review your photos while they’re still in the camera and delete all your duds. Edit as you go …
Initially I was quite anti digital photography when it first arrived. I hoped 35mm would hang on in there alongside it, but soon the high street chemists and photographic shops began to change, and fresh stocks of film slowly began to disappear. I bought my first digital camera in Japan, in Tokyo’s famous “electric town” – Akihabara. It was very small (tiny in fact when compared to my “small” Olympus), and very versatile (a Pentax Optio, alas now thoroughly worn-out from use). It set the pattern for me. From then on I’ve preferred the smaller compact cameras as they are easier to carry around, and as the technology has improved there are so many things you can do with them that previously you’d never have been able to do with a standard camera. I realise though that I could probably achieve a far higher calibre kind of photograph if I used a larger digital SLR and played around with fancy editing software, but it’s not quite the same. For the time being, keeping it light and unobtrusive is mostly my main concern, especially when travelling.
Undoubtedly photography is a real art. It helps to have a genuine feel for it, a certain aptitude perhaps. How to frame an image; an eye for lines – symmetries and convergences; vanishing points, and depth of field; as well as a manner which doesn’t intrude upon or inhibit the subject (be it a person or a landscape for that matter), but instead having a modus operandi which helps put the world at its ease so that it can simply be itself and continue doing its own thing in its own way. Images are important, but a good photograph captures something more than memory or merely its surface. For all its convenience, digital photography isn’t quite the same. I do miss 35mm.
All the images accompanying this article (with the exception of the one showing my old Pentax Optio) are scans of photographs taken by me between 1992 and 2004 using the various 35mm cameras I've described above.