When I was about fourteen, my dad gave me his old bellows travel camera. A bellows camera is the old-fashioned type that holds a lens on a pull-out frame, so that when the camera is to be used, the light-tight fabric bellows opens with it, like a concertina, to the focal length of the lens. In this age of digital electronics, it amuses me that a schematic of a bellows camera is still used for speed camera warning signs.
Dad’s old camera worked entirely from mechanical components. All of the settings were controlled by rings, springs and levers. The timer was clockwork. The only battery needed was in the flash assembly – an arcane device with a foldable reflector that required single-use bulbs for each shot. It was synchronised with the camera by means of a lead that connected to the shutter release trigger that short-circuited the flash connector and fired with a satisfying ‘pfft’ and fused the bulb. It was a wonderfully physical camera that required a basic understanding of exposure and depth of field to ensure that the correct amount of light was admitted via the iris and the subject remained in focus. It needed rolls of 120 film, which gave 12 pictures per roll. Film was not cheap, nor was processing it into prints, and one had to shoot judiciously. Dad had taken this little camera around the world in his navy days, photographing his ports of call in black and white. He would get the film developed in strange towns and cities, so that he could send pictures home. I took it on school trips and photographed my classmates on ferries to France, trips to London, and other exciting schoolgirly things, and eventually took pictures of my friends at our eighteenth birthday parties using the cranky flash gun. Had not the seals on the camera body deteriorated, letting in unwanted light, the camera would still work. However, film processing these days is the province of specialist businesses, and requires a degree of patience on the part of the photographer, that perhaps would not justify the outcome in my case. I have become used to more sophisticated means of tricking the light into a box.
The old camera had a fixed-focus lens – about 45mm, I think, but it could cope with most kinds of shot, from mountains to birthday cakes, within the skill of the photographer, and the expectations of the time. It wasn’t brilliant, and no match in quality for my modern digital SLR. But the great thing about the mechanical camera was the physicality of it. The magic was in the making and understanding of optics, the careful engineering that can entice a fragment of light through a lens to capture a ghost of a moment. I can switch my modern camera to a ‘point and shoot’ mode, where even the most inept photographer can obtain a sharp image, even if it is badly composed or ill-timed. In the past, some appreciation of the science in the machine by the photographer was part of the deal, and the manual adjustment of the dials and numbers was the way one showed mastery over the mystery of light. I learned the basics of photographer by twiddling an aperture ring, and setting the exposure on a ruled dial.
This little excursion was prompted by my acquisition of a compact camera. After years of neck-ache toting an SLR around, I have decided it is time for a neat little ‘handbag job’. Modern technology offers many options in small geniuses of cameras. CCD technology and electronics would have seemed like alien technology to the makers of my dad’s camera. In my research of the field I was dazzled by the possibilities, not just the incredible technology, but the psychology of the thing. Cameras not only record ‘snap shot memories’ but can almost re-write them. The camera I have chosen is modestly priced, but has enough on-board technology to re-present my images with various special effects. I can brighten them up or cool them down, preselect shooting modes, make them look cuter like miniature landscapes and allow me to use a ‘toy camera’. Ironically, the ‘toy camera’ effect allows a photographer to reproduce the characteristics of an old-fashioned film camera. Professionals, using real toy cameras with a great deal more skill than yours truly make wonderful, artistic images. For a long while, there has been software for anyone to post-process their pictures to buff them up visually or put an entirely different spin on their images. I can effectively edit my life, make it prettier and fluffier. Of course, this messing around with images is fun and aesthetically pleasing. And it is possible to argue that the control one is able to have over photography allows even an inexperienced amateur to better capture the essence of what they photographing. Long before digital electronics, professional photographers worked miracles with simple kit by developing a deep understanding how to manipulate the light, and no amount of clever technology will turn an untalented amateur into a photographic artist. I am happy to go along with the fun of the thing. However, I am conscious that part of this trend to idealise or cutify things is an attempt to convince ourselves, and the friends we show off to, that life is – was – better than reality.
One of the reasons I selected my new compact was that it had a full manual mode, and even some mechanical attributes, such as an aperture ring. Despite this, I do know that I will play with my world through the lens of a toy camera.