Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pointing In The Right Direction

In 1985, before I left on a vacation to Jamaica, I gave my dad a little pep talk about an impending round of medical tests he was facing. Dad hated doctors and hospitals. When I returned home from my trip, I couldn’t find anyone. This was a time of pre-cell phones so they weren’t a call away. I checked with a few friends but got no leads. No one left a note for me either. I thought back to those tests and then headed to the local hospital. Unfortunately, he was there.

Dad died a few weeks later.

My dad’s brother had come over to Toronto from Glasgow, Scotland. I felt horrible that this man, who had longed to visit his brother, had done so under such terrible circumstances. When he went home, I sent almost every photograph I had of my father with him. It was the least I could do.

I remember telling my Uncle Jack, “Don’t worry, I’ve got the negatives.”

Years later, when I longed for photos of my father, do you think I could find those damned negatives? I looked everywhere, but they seemed to just disappear. I’d headed to my mom’s place and she and I looked through some of her old photo albums, the ones she could find. Still couldn’t find those damned negatives.

“These will all be yours someday son,” she’d said to me waving her hand over a stack of photo albums.

A stack of Polaroids waiting to be scanned
Mom died two years ago and when I was cleaning out her apartment I boxed up every photo I could find. There were hundreds including her and dad’s entire wedding album. It took me a long time to start sorting though them. I wanted to scan them to keep them safe. Were the images I found that impressive that I needed to protect them so the world could see them? Were they museum quality shots? Were they shot by professionals and worth a lot of money? Was Ansel Adams a part of my family?

No on all counts. However, I did feel the need to protect them for my family’s posterity. Could others find them interesting? Maybe, but the thrust was to ensure that my family had a photographic record of some of its early members. And wouldn’t you know it, I found those damned negatives, too.

Me and Dad.
I’m passionate about photography. I’ve been paid for my photographs but I still don’t think of myself as a professional. The marketing department of a camera manufacturer would call me a prosumer; not quite a pro but above an amateur. I’ve worked hard to improve at the craft of taking pictures. When I went through the hundreds of pictures accumulated by my parents I lost track of the number of bad ones. There were a lot of bad photos.

And I loved them. Bad, good and everything in between.

Part of my interest in photography was always seeing a camera in my dad’s hands. I remember the 8mm movie camera he had that he cranked to use. I remember the Super 8 movie camera he used with the cartridges. The camera I remember the most was his beloved Polaroid. I found out recently that my brother had it. Once I got the model number it took me a week to get my own. It was a Polaroid ‘Automatic’ 330 Land Camera which was produced between 1969-1971.

The O'Neills in October of '69. Dig those ties.
I can still see the spots in my eyes from the flash he used. Dad became a master at pulling the picture from the camera. He’d flip the little switch on the back of the camera to start the timer, dangle the ‘developing’ picture and wait. I can still hear the sound of the timer buzzing down, and when it stopped, he’d peel the photo from the chemical paper and there was his photo. It was a special moment, every single time he’d reveal the results.

He was no Art Wolfe or Yousuf Karsh; he was a man who loved to take pictures of the people and places in his life. He had little patience for manuals. No time to shoot with film formats that forced him to run to the drug store for ‘prints’.

Mom and Dad weren’t the only shooters to contribute to the pile of photos, their friends added photos and so did I. Those negatives I spoke of yielded some great shots of dad. I even scored one of he and I together. I discovered that when I started out in photography I was no Adams, Karsh or Wolfe either. The shoe box full of photos along with the bags and smaller boxes, all had blurry shots, heads cut off, underexposed, overexposed…all kinds of crazy mistakes. I smile when I look at them.

Bottom of Mimico Ave in Etobicoke. Painted streetcar stop. Traffic lights 'button'
I am so thankful that someone, anyone, skilled at photography or not, was there to take these photos. They show the city where I was born and the one where I grew up. Most importantly, there are many photos of family and friends. Though these may not be considered national treasures, they are historical documents to me and hopefully to my kin’s future generations.

I’m thrilled that my daughter has picked up a camera and started to shoot – and not just shots for her Facebook page. She’s trying to learn, just like I did after seeing my dad with his camera. This means more photos to add to the pile – good, bad and everything in between.

So thanks dad, mom and all those people who shall remain nameless, for picking up all those different cameras and pointing them in the right direction.

What follows are just a few of the photos I found in my mom's 'pile' of pictures. I hope this gives others the impetus to gather up their family photos.  

Andy (my dad) and his brother, Alex.

Alice and Andy O'Neill (my parents).

My grandmother Alice Paterick and her parents William and Elizabeth.

Loch Ean, Scotland, 1954. Third from the left in the very back row (slight profile) is my Grandfather, Thomas Adair.

Me and my brother Andy. Glasgow, Scotland, 1963.

Alex (Elky) O'Neill, my uncle. My mom, dad and me, downtown Glasgow, 1969. This shot was taken by my brother. How can I tell? Everyone but me is looking down at him.

My Grandfather teaching my Uncle Tommy how to fly. Love the push car.

Househillmuir Rd, Glasgow, Scotland. Some of my family.

Dad, doing what he did best. He was a great entertainer.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Film's Not Dead...

It's Just Resting Comfortably

I waited. That kind of awkward pause when mid stride, you freeze with your weight slightly forward, anxiously waiting for the photographer to snap the photo of their grinning subjects so you can resume your saunter. I’ll never break the line between photographer and subject, it’s just not couth. And, on this particular occasion, the photographer was an older gentleman. He held up an iPhone and waited just a few seconds before pushing the digitized shutter button. I could hear the canned shutter release sound, smiled at him, and walked on. Just as my parents were able to acquire cameras that were far more advanced and simpler than what their parents used, this man was able to grasp the absolute joy of digital photography, a far cry from what we used just a few short years ago - film. As a lover of photography, I was thrilled.

Nikon D5100 with a AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 G lens
Every single person I know is a photographer. No, I don’t only hang out with pro shutterbugs. Every person I know owns and uses a camera. I love photography, it is a huge part of my life so, I’m thrilled to see so many people enjoying it, including that man and his iPhone. Advancements in digital technology have opened people up to the joys of photography. That is something to rejoice.

Like the vast majority of the world, I, too, have embraced digital photography. I’ve gone through several models (none of which feel as good as my old Nikon F90x 35mm film camera) and will likely go through several more before I find that perfect fit. Through technological advancements that I have no hope of explaining here, let alone understanding, I’m reaping benefits I only imagined when shooting film. Be honest, who doesn’t relish the instant satisfaction of seeing an image immediately after pressing the shutter down. No more waiting to see if you got it right. You simply check the screen and keep or discard. It’s a joy and it’s far less expensive even if you plan to print out what you shoot. Remember, we can cull the bad shots quickly and print only what we need. The costs of printing vary so widely (so many different printers, inks and papers) that I can’t say how much of a savings there is to be had every 24 or 36 frames. There is no doubt a huge savings. No need to buy film, no need to process it, or go through the effort of sifting through the bad and saving the good. There was a time not to long ago that one needed to head back to the lab to process the good for extra prints or enlargements. All that has changed with digital photography.
Fujifilm XP10 Point and Shoot Digital Camera

Clients wait a day, maybe two, to get their images. Anyone shooting for mags (traditional or online), can edit their shots in-camera and upload them immediately. It is an instant world where more and more of what we want and need can be obtained in little or no time at all. With the internet booming, bringing us news as it happens, photography had no choice but to advance. Even if a pro developed their own film images, it could still take days or weeks to see them. A photojournalist in a war-torn part of the world would either rely heavily on locals to have the film developed or they’d send it ‘home’ where it could be developed. Either way, it took time. Now: shoot, plug into your computer, download, edit and hit send. All that could take, if you’re not too picky, seconds, which is often the case with social media. If we were still all shooting film, photos of college kids getting drunk would take days to see. Now, shoot and upload to Facebook or Twitter directly from your phone. Instant!

Nikon D90 with a 60mm AF Micro Nikkor 2.8 D lens
One might argue that shooting film makes the photographer think just a bit more before pushing down that button. You need to make sure your settings are correct, the composition just right, backlighting, horizon, foreground, background, hotspots, focus, depth of field…if you mess up, you just won’t know it until it’s too late. You get that roll of film developed and there it is, the perfect shot out of focus or a tree branch growing out of your subject’s head or any number of mistakes you could have avoided. Digital allows for us to rub out those errors quickly, but does it make us slow down and learn? Don’t we have to run through that checklist when shooting digital as well? Point and shoots, no, but if you’re shooting manual settings, absolutely you do. That’s key: turn all of your digital camera’s settings to manual and you will learn a lot more about photography than if you just point and shoot. Given the right circumstances one can learn just as efficiently on a digital SLR as on a traditional 35mm SLR.

Why lament film?

Photography has advanced so rapidly in such a short span that the thought of film is to some, archaic. Putting aside my love of digital photography, I miss film. But why? All those hassles and worries are gone with digital. What is it about film that draws people in? What is the allure?

The first shot I ever took with my Nikon EM; July, 1981 - I was hooked.  
I don’t miss rotary phones, VHS or black and white televisions. I have no interest in messaging with an electrical telegraph. I will never ride a horse, anywhere. I haven’t mailed a letter in years. This piece was not written on a typewriter. I will not shoot with film. Wait. That is a lie. I’ve already started.

I initially began shooting 35mm film with a Nikon EM in 1981. I’ve always loved that camera and I’ve kept it in the best shape possible. I dug it out to display it in the living room and a strange thing happened. I loaded it up with film that we’d had in a drawer for seven or eight years. Every shot showed a hint of red so, I won’t be passing those around at the next dinner party. The more important phenomenon that occurred was the ‘feeling’ I got with that old Nikon in my hands. There was definitely a nostalgia about it; I remembered learning with that camera, struggling to get it right. The biggest lesson I learned by shooting with that camera was that there is no such thing as a perfect photograph. No matter how good you think it is, you’ll always look at a photo knowing you can do better. It’s like shooting over one hundred in a round of golf but keying in on that solitary shot of the day that felt absolutely perfect. It’s what gets you out on the course to try again. That one photo, the one you planned and executed perfectly, that’s what puts another roll of film in the camera which leads to another trip to the local film processor.

All of my local shops still sell a limited amount of film, including print or slide, black and white or colour, 135 or 120. And since they sell it, they process it, too. If you want a quick one hour turn around, there’s always Walmart.

Nikon FE with a 50mm 1.8 lens
I laughed at myself when I was loading the camera for the first time in a dozen or more years. I’d almost forgotten the dance steps but after a bit of fumbling, I closed the back and advanced the film. It felt so familiar pushing that lever and feeling a slight grinding vibration as the film moved along the sprockets, the click signifying the frame had been advanced, the rewind lever spinning counterclockwise to show I’d successfully loaded the film. I lifted the lever and turned it clockwise to tighten the film. I swear I heard it stretch.

After the first shot I was hooked. I remembered to manually advance the film. My hands settled comfortably around the controls and the dance steps slid back into my mind. It came easy. It felt so good. There is something about the risk of film that I think is a big draw for photographers. Or, if it isn’t yet, it will be. I was so smitten with my EM experience that I grabbed my Nikon F90x and shot a roll with that, too. Again, a familiar feeling came over me and I barely had to think about what do when composing a shot. I’d used that camera for only six or seven years before going digital, but it remains the camera that best suits me.

There were a few cameras between my EM and my latest Nikon D90 with one in particular standing out. I urge every single person who wants to take up photography to use a Pentax K1000 35mm film camera.* It’s simplicity allows you to focus on the reasons for your choices. You will learn about apertures, shutter speeds and how the two relate. You can concentrate on the absolute fundamentals of photography since the K1000 has no bells and whistles to distract the shooter. There are no temptations to use the camera’s auto systems since there are none. Sadly, I chose to trade in my K1000 in 2001. I’ve mourned the loss ever since.

But all is not lost. As with film, the cameras are still readily available. There are film cameras for sale online, at local shops, markets and swap meets. My wife and I recently started collecting cameras and without a doubt they all look fantastic in our home. Photography has been a huge part of our lives so, it was just a logical thing to do. I’ve noticed the beauty of cameras and not just old folding or bellows models but more recent models as well. I love their esthetics and I often wonder what those cameras have witnessed. If they could talk, would they spin yarns of years spent abroad, would they tell of tragedy or triumph, would they be able to remember when the Leafs won the Stanley Cup? 

Nikon FE with a 50mm 1.8 lens
If you’re inclined to shoot some film but don’t own a camera, there’s no need to worry. You can find a very good 35mm camera for a hundred dollars or less. Generally speaking, the more you spend the better the camera with which you’ll be shooting. When it comes to used cameras you get what you pay for. I recently got my hands on a beautiful Nikon FE. Not only will it be the highlight of my camera collection, it will be great to take out on field trips. I stumbled upon another Nikon FE at a charity shop and picked it up, complete with a 35 to 135mm lens for $14.

There is a light breeze blowing out there, I can hear it. It’s saying, “Collect me.”  Camera collecting has been going on since Kodak introduced a second model making the first one desirable. Over the last decade prices on film cameras have plummeted. I’ve watched my F90x fall to below a hundred dollars and that was with a grip and data back. Recently, a Nikon F100 sold on ebay for exactly one hundred dollars. These are two stellar cameras whose recent prices are a reflection of the flourishing digital industry.

Collecting is the way to keep these beautiful and highly functional machines in our lexicon. What would our world be without a Brownie, AE1 or Polaroid? Collecting film cameras of all types ensures their history will not be lost on the next generation. As my daughter looked at a vinyl record with a clueless expression, I don’t want her kids to look at a film camera and be dumbfounded. Now is the time to buy film cameras. They’ve hit rock bottom and we all know there really is no other way but up when that happens. Buy them now because they are affordable. Once that light breeze blows a bit stronger, prices will rise and collecting will be far more restrictive.

Polaroid "Automatic" 330 Land Camera (1968) - Fujifilm FP-100c - July, 2011
Film is not dead, it’s just resting comfortably waiting for the right people to come along and give it new life. Shooting a roll of film a month will give you more satisfaction than you can imagine. It will slow you down, make you think, and let you enjoy the leisurely side of photography.

Give a film camera a home and make sure to take it on plenty of walks.

Other reasons I miss shooting with film: I miss those little plastic containers the film came in – they were perfect for holding loose change. I miss opening the fridge and moving the boxes of film out of the way to get to the butter. Darkrooms are great for more than developing photos (great for napping – get your minds out of the gutter).

*I do not work for the company, nor am I affiliated in any way. It’s just that good a camera.