The smartphone, with its built-in camera, is the new Kodak Brownie, but even more commonplace.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the camera has become the reflexive tool for recording the events of our lives. But, from the vantage of our photo-flooded world, imagine how magical the first camera obscura prints by Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre must have appeared, in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
My discovery of photography was perhaps no different from any other child of my generation. Most photos were still monotone and, naturally, weren’t instant (though Polaroid was available). We made images of our families, their possessions and their activities. Sometimes, pictures were the only thing we knew of lost forbears — young men in well-pressed uniforms.
Before I was six years-old, I was lucky to be introduced, in my father’s attic darkroom, to the mysteries of the photographic process. My job was to rock the developing trays — I could just peer over the edge of the sink — as the silver halide performed its alchemy, defying the bounds of time by turning blank paper into multifaceted stories.
Meanwhile, my father performed sorcery under the dim red light and glowing enlarger — built from a treacle tin, incorporating his camera lens.
The blurry photograph on this page records my first self-directed portrait (taken with my first camera … yes, a Kodak Brownie). It is a simple snapshot. But besides its personal significance, it illustrates to me the power of the medium to “capture the moment.”
Look at the camera position. It is the viewpoint of a child. The year is 1959. The subjects are my paternal grandparents, Jack and Lizzie Parker, and younger cousin Susan. The location is in front of our newly-built council house, on a post-war English estate—the affordable rental housing of the day. My grandparents lived close by, in another rented home, built similarly as post-war housing, after the First World-War.
I remember the day only faintly but the aggregation of other memories triggered by the image creates a world unto itself. The death of my beloved grandmother, a year later, was my first shocking encounter with mortality and grief.
How could I have known my little plastic Brownie would lead to a fascinating hobby, that would get out of hand and become a trade? Thirty years later, I found myself in the ruthless world of advertising, where I received some of the best advice ever heard from a fellow shutterbug, one of Toronto’s best commercial shooters: “Never forget why you fell in love with photography … and get out of this business before it sucks your creativity dry.”
Of course, I made a digital scan of the original print for this post. I resisted the temptation to remove all “analog” artifacts, only repairing major obscuring damage (and adding the kitschy “aged” border) in Photoshop.
The digital age has further simplified (perhaps democratized) photography and made images easier to duplicate than ever. It has also given us amazing tools to restore historic photos.
And yet, maybe the omnipresence of digital imaging has also smothered some of the awe once created by the medium. Is this what some nineteenth century painters and illustrators feared from the photographic interloper; that familiarity might lead to a kind of superficial “consumer” attitude to visual art?
It may be more than a little appropriate to pose the question on this screen: Are we seeing the end of the print? Perhaps, in future posts on this topic, I’ll look at that.