From 2004-2012, I rarely used, and didn’t own, a camera, not even on a cell phone, and not just because I don't use a cell phone. That’s not remarkable by itself, but it is just a little bit strange, considering that I was a professional photographer for several years, as well as an obsessive, even complusive, phototographer, since I as 14. David LaChapelle once said to me, at a party, after seeing my photographs, “Wow. You really are good,” which was a short but wonderful compliment, from the highest paid photographer in the world. Now, the act of holding a camera, feels like a reunion with my first love. I feel warm but uncomfortable. Automatically, I begin to obsess, which felt good all those years ago, but now to an older, and perhaps wearier mind, filled with so many other thoughts that are part of “a bigger picture,” it seems indulgent and impractical. I feel like I should let go of the camera.
I started taking photographs before the age of digital photography, in 1990. I was 14 years old, and spontaneously had the desire to photograph anything and everything. My first camera cost £20 ($30) brand new. It was a Russian Lubitel 166U, and as inexpensive as it was, it still used medium format film (much larger than 35mm) and produced excellent images. Medium format cameras were specialized and most of them cost thousands of dollars. This camera definitely had some idiosyncrasies for its very reasonable price tag. It was perfect for any keen student of photography, and helped me to gain awareness of every aspect of the photographic process.
The 166U was entirely mechanical, so it required no batteries, which also meant that light needed to be measured with a seperate light meter. All the controls needed to be operated manually, and the film needed to be loaded in the dark for best results. The winding on the film had to be ‘remembered’ and the amount of winding needed to be judged, by using a tiny red plastic window that allowed you to see the advancing of the film. This meant that some pictures could overlap on the negative roll, or in cases of forgetfulness or confusion, be unintentionally double exposed.
I used to develop the exposed rolls of film at home, using chemicals that could only smell good to those that truly loved photography. After I had hung the negatives to dry just like laundry, and they were flat and smooth with no wrinkles or water stains, (which would mean that they hadn’t been rinsed properly), I would make prints from the negatives using an old rusty enlarger (bought from a thrift store, also for £20), using more even chemicals. I could only print at night, when there was no daylight to leak through the kitchen windows, which I covered with blankets and tape.
Before the days of photoshop, most images would still need to be corrected or ‘enhanced.’ Even if there were no water stains, scratches or dust on the transparency or negative, a picture would rarely come out perfectly the first time. Controlling of contrast was done using colored filters, or using different grades of paper. Light and dark areas of prints needed to be balanced or compensated, using the darkroom operator’s skills with shadow puppertry and creative mask making. Whenever I had been developing and printing photographs through the night, by the morning, the house was filled with a web of clothes lines, with drying photographs hanging from them. It was a long and involved process, and I loved every minute of it.
At 14 years old, my school became my first clients. For every school event, sports team, play, and group portrait, I took photographs, developed the film, and sold prints to every person, in every picture, making money from every print sold. At 15 years old, I was comissioned to produce all the pupils’ year photographs, and even a portrait of the headmaster in his office. By that time I had graduated to using a more professional camera, and I would use full studio lighting on location. At 16, I went to college to study photography and design, and I worked as a photographic assistant to a commercial studio. I photographed everything that needed photographing in the industrial city of Birmingham (England’s Detroit) for print advertising and editorials; widgets, washers, screws, oil-filters, microchips, springs, cars, car parts, guns, tanks, and even the machines that produce them all. Everything and anything that was manufactured, also needed photographing.
I became a professional photographer, which served me well and paid the bills for several years to come, until the popularisation of an invention that had been simmering in the background, which had previously never been connected to my world of photography. The powers and abilities of personal computers were increasing exponentially. So far, they had only been useful for games and word processing, so I had paid them little to no attention. The first time I saw a photo-realistic image displayed on a computer monitor, I started paying them close attention. I’d never seen anything like it before. They would soon create a new way of expressing ideas and creativity, as well as a whole new industry. All the jobs which had previously been done seperately by the art directors, photographers, illustrators, typesetters and print makers, could now be done by one person, with one vision.
By 1997, personal computers were powerful enough, affordable enough, and ubiquitous enough to have established all new standards in publishing and the print production industry, (though it was a while longer before digital cameras were to do the same). I wanted to be a part of it, and so I became a freelance graphic designer, which would serve me well and pay the bills for another several years. I would also now be able to utilize the same tool set for every business endeavor and task after that, to be able to communicate ideas and concepts quickly and efficiently.
Photography has been democratized, and after multiple digital revolutions, the photograph has become more relevant now than ever. Photography has turned from an esoteric black art, only commandable by the hands of a few, into a social activity we engage in every day, for which no special thought or consideration is required. Easy or not, those pictures can still be beautiful, moving, and powerful. This is a time when a good photograph will travel the world on its merits alone. Selfishly, of course, I do feel just a little nostalgic for the days when it was difficult, and complicated, and those of us that knew how to command the tools, felt special.