I Am A Camera

Musings whilst learning to operate a DSLR camera. 

“I am a camera, with its shutter open,quite passive. some day all of this will have to be developed, fixed. ”  I am a Camera

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I am a Camera is the title of a play by John van Druten based on the Berlin books by Christopher Isherwood. It metamorphosed further into Cabaret, the musical, which metamorphosed further into Cabaret , the movie. It was my final show  at drama school,  I played the Isherwood character, who did not seem to bear much resemblance to the man I read about in the biography , Christopher and His Kind , and who was changed again in the musical, and given a different name . It was  a play based on a book, which was based on ‘real life’ experience, then moulded and metamorphosed into various forms of art. Layers upon layers of ‘reality’.

As I muse on the intricacies of learning my first proper ‘grown up camera’ and wondering why I keep wanting to just put it down and reach for the iPad ,I consider what I am wearing. A waistcoat my father bought me. My father was a professional theatrical photographer , and took amazing photographs of famous people in the fifties and sixties , people ranging from the Goons to the Aga Khan. They were usually moody black and white studio shots with cross lighting . They were not ‘real’ but they were evocative and told us something about the performer , something magical which you could not articulate. This magic was often performed on me when I was small especially in a series of shots taken at my second birthday party, which I still have. I can smell the cake and feel the textures of the toys when I look at those pictures now. The atmosphere just oozes from them.

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic 100. The first mass produced camera that absolutely anyone could use. The main quality of this camera was in its name. It was instant. Ease and instant gratification. Except it was not really instant because the film still had to be sent to Boots to be developed. I was incredibly proud of this device which eventually produced small square prints . The camera was crude and basic, but I learned a little about shutter speed and some very basic camera skills. Unfortunately my parents had divorced so my dad was not around to give advice. The size of the small square pictures makes me feel now like I am peering down a tunnel into the past. Things are hard to discern or get any kind of atmosphere from. They are principally black and white which I love, but they have no depth, either literally or metaphorically. they may be ‘real’ but they are not real.

There is a wonderful speech in FIVE KINDS OF SILENCE by Shelagh Stephenson, where a young woman whose family background is horrific describes a snapshot from her childhood which completely masked how she was really feeling. I was given a picture recently where I was about 12 and riding on a donkey at the seaside. I hated it and was scared, but I am grinning with delight on the picture. I looked at my younger self intently to see if I could see any fleck of fear in my face, but it was not to be seen. Yet for me, it was the fear that was real , not the smile.

I feel that in some ways we have paid for pursuing photography with ease and instant gratification, even worse with the Polaroid, and of course, the smartphones. We sacrifice –  literally – the depth of the image, and I became very aware of this the other day when I took a few shots with my new camera  . Two of the photographs I took of my birthday party made me gasp with their richness. They were truly atmospheric , rich in colour and depth and reminded me that to find depth takes a degree of dedication to studying the camera and becoming proficient .Furthermore, it reminded me that ‘reality’ is not flat, but has a density and texture which goes far beyond anything instant. It is mysterious. It should be there in any artistic work.

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