The best thing about a mobile phone camera is that it is always with you. These are a few of the themes that I have followed with various phone cameras, starting with three Nokias some years ago, then with a Samsung i8910, Galaxy’s S2/3/4 and now S5.
For 25 years of my life, if you had asked what I was, I would have replied: ‘A photographer’. I started off as a professional way back in the 60s, after a brief career as a journalist, specialising in theatre, dance opera and photojournalism. Despite my life being hijacked by Theatre – I founded South Africa’s first non-racial, professional theatre/arts venue – The Space – in Cape Town in 1972 – I continued to kid myself that I was, first and foremost, a photographer. It was only after I moved to London with my wife, Yvonne Bryceland – South Africa’s greatest actor – that I discovered that I was not a photographer. Nor was I a theatre director. I was a teacher. Discovering your real vocation in life is a precious thing. I started teaching young actors, directors and writers.
Along the way I finally gave up my darkroom – all those dried out chemicals, the boxes of unused paper…. I also lost faith in myself as a photographer.
One blessed day one of my young students at Mountview Theatre Academy, where I was Head of Acting Directing and Musical Theatre Courses, asked me if I would do a photograph for the poster of their new devised piece. When I said I would get out my dusty cameras, he said: ‘No need – I’ve got access to a digital camera and a place that will do the photo-editing for us for free.’ His name is Dan Poole, and I have much for which to thank him.
I found myself in an ill-lit-by-fluorescents corridor outside the graphics company that were lending us everything. I had a small digital camera, no idea how to use it, and Dan’s warning ringing in my ears: ‘It will only take about eight shots before the battery runs out!’ Oh, those early days…
We lined up the picture – it was a Greek play about a Queen who beheaded her lovers. Dan’s head was sticking out from under the Queen’s arm at a rather strange angle – behind which the rest of his body could be seen. I started shooting, one at a time. The fourth picture looked right, but I kept going – used to my old 36-exposure 35mm ways. At exposure eight the camera died. No dramatics – the screen just went black.
We adjourned to the photo-editing suite inside, where I had my second Photographic Epiphany. The first had come the first time I saw a print come up in the developer in a dark-room. No photographer ever forgets that miraculous moment. This time I watched in complete amazement as the editor calmly, quickly selected the rest of Dan’s body and consigned it to the digital dustbin. Within five minutes we had a truly creepy poster, with titles, dates, venue, for Dan to take to the printers whom he had suborned into helping out.
I left the building, my jaw dragging on the ground, my photographic moxy mushrooming almost obscenely.
Life being that way, a short while later an actor who I had turned, very successfully, into a photographer – Camilla Watson – phoned me. She had met a rep from Olympus. They were desperate to get photographers to accept this new medium. Despite her demurring he had given her an Olympus 2500. ‘I’m not vaguely interested in it,’ (she remains firmly loyal to the old-fashioned methods she learned in my darkroom, before I gave it to her to be transported to Brazil where she was teaching photography to young kids in the favelas of Sao Paolo. These days she has become really famous in Portugal, where she has now taken this fetish with chemicals and emulsion to ridiculous levels, printing photographs on the walls of the city) ‘do you want it?’
And so began my second photographic career. This time as a true amateur – a lover of photography.
It’s been a long, lovely journey. My first camera was the family’s Box Brownie. I was given this to record my school trip up the coast of South Africa on the Edinburgh Castle – one of the wonderful Union Castle Line that used to bring the mail, and much else, to South Africa. I fell wildly in love with the medium. On my return, Gribble’s in Paarl processed all my shaky photos and I had masses of blurry little photos, approximately 3.25×2.25 inches. My parents wrestled the Box Brownie from my unwilling hands and put it back in its cupboard. Over the years they had tried to support my fetish for A Hobby. I had been through model airplanes, stamps, and even aspired to the heights of building my own Astral telescope. Each one had succumbed to my innate laziness – the fact that you had to grind the lens yourself over many long and boring nights did for my Moon Mania. Now they were unwilling to spend any more money on another short-lived craze. Sadly, little did they know….
I went off to University in the Big City – Cape Town – and found myself walking the streets, staring at cameras in shop windows. They were all far too expensive. I was on R10 (approx £4 in those days) pocket money to last for a month. And there was also my Film Fetish to feed. One day, in a small chemist shop in an arcade I saw a small 35mm of indeterminate origin. It was on sale for R10. I slunk off, only to return several times, drawn as if by some magical mysterious force (which I now know to be my rampant Shopaholicism…). Finally, one day, I plucked up the courage and walked in. Could he give it to me on a Pay-As-You-Go plan (can’t remember what it was called back then)? I had no security, was a university student, no visible earnings. I don’t know whether it was my transparently honest face, or sheer desperation on the Chemist’s part to sell something which didn’t seem to be moving, but I walked out – having signed all sorts of documents which said that I would be paying back, I think it was R12.50 in monthly instalments over the next six months (which I did) – carrying my first camera-all-my-own, loaded with one roll of very cheap film. I had great fun with that odd little, probably Eastern European or Japanese rip-off of the Nikon rangefinder, camera.
One day, in my second year at University, one of my seniors in College House, my Residence, said: ‘Have you ever processed your own prints?’ No, I had always just handed them into the friendly local chemist. He took me into the Residence’s dark-room, took one of my negatives, put it into the enlarger, switched off the light, plunging us into the wonderful, comforting red glow of the safelight, focused the weird negative image, exposed a sheet of paper, and let me slide it into the apparently inert liquid. As the image grew from pale through the various stages of contrast, until the face of my set-daughter-to-be, Colleen, lay fully developed in that same liquid – now a wondrous potion!
It was indeed a Magical Epiphany; one that kept me averring that I was a Photographer for the next 25 years.
I did my first professional job with that camera, but I knew quite early on that it was not really up to the job. Those were the days when many photographers were still lugging huge 4×5 plate cameras around. The Chief Photographer of The Cape Times (where I met my wife, and for whom I began to take photographs for her various journalistic ventures) still went off to Rugby games carrying his Speed Graphic with five or six slides. He would charge up and down the touchline, focussing by guess work (and the hyper-focal distance) and come back with five or six god photos. He scorned 35mm, which most of his younger staff were using.
So, when I realised that I might actually be paid for my little fetish, I went back to stalking the streets and the second-hand shops. There I found a slightly battered Yashicaflex. I seem to remember it cost me R12. My professional career was launched!
It didn’t take long for me to realise that this piece of equipment would not cut it. A friend asked whether I would photograph her wedding. I refused. Wedding photos were all stilted and posed, and really high quality. I was not interested – I was a photo-journalist. That was exactly what she wanted she said. No posed photos, just an informal, journalistic record. It was the money that finally seduced me. It wasn’t as much as ‘proper’ wedding photographers were getting, but it WAS almost enough to buy me a Pentax Spotmatic with an amazingly fast 1.8 50mm lens! I was in!
I had a ball. I love observing, being a real voyeur. The loved the pictures and I started finding myself inundated with requests to do further wedding in this style. These kept me almost afloat, untilI realised that I was spending a disproportionately large amount of time in the darkroom I had rigged up in our kitchen – which I could only access after everyone had gone to bed. It was bringing no profit at all. Other people started approaching me to do more traditional wedding photos. I tried, but it didn’t work. The earlier weddings had been fun pics of fun people. Now I was being bored by endless boring speeches; that awful time when the guests get too drunk, the Best Man gets up and delivers his appalling single-entendre speech, to brays of laughter from the drunks and deep embarrassment from those who had refrained from excess. I had to suffer through all this in order to be there for the final photos as the bridal car drew off, dragging its obligatory cans, to the raucous obscenities shouted by the best men…. Do I sound bitter? I still go to weddings with considerable trepidation, and ALWAYS leave when I notice the first signs of inebriation.
Then Theatre entered my life.