A relic on my youth emerged from its dusty hiding place the other day, namely my old Polaroid Land camera, which got me thinking about how much photography has changed over the past half a century. Not that one can even call the art of picture-taking photography any more, for gone are the light-sensitive films and papers, and the chemicals, from which photography takes its name.
My interest in photography started before I turned ten, sparked by one Robert Sithole, the local house-painter, who earned extra income when not house-painting by taking meticulously-posed black and white postcard-sized photos of the local domestic workforce in a nearby park, and who thus needed a darkroom in which to process his work.
Because he had painted our house Robert knew that there was a shallow unused space under the floorboards with a small hatch-like door as access, and he persuaded my mother that a darkroom would fit in there nicely. She agreed, and he thus set about digging out a pit deep enough in which to stand upright, and erecting shelves and installing an illegal power connection.
Next, he persuaded a family friend for whom he had also done painting work to part with an ancient enlarger, a safe-light and some developing trays and, hey, presto, he was in business. He thought our suggested name of “Snap-Happy Studios” a bit pretentious and so just called himself “R Sithole, Photographer” and had a rubber stamp made with his name and address, which was stamped on to the back of all his work.
Soon my curiosity at this activity under the house turned to enquiring fascination and I became a willing assistant, carrying kettles and buckets of water, hot and cold, with which to mix and warm chemicals and wash the film and prints, and agitating the papers in the developer tray, and before long I had acquired the skills and knowledge to process my own pictures.
Only problem was, I didn’t possess a camera. This was solved one birthday when I was presented with a Kodak Brownie Box camera and with this I set about wasting yards of film taking “artistic” pictures of anything that stood still long enough, and even things that didn’t.
My knowledge and skill in the darkroom was put to good use at high school, where we had our own darkroom, better equipped than Robert’s, and where we pupils spent many happy hours in the gloom smoking Lucky Strikes and reproducing pictures of nudes filched from the dog-eared Playboy magazines that did the rounds.
I even did a stint as a professional photographer’s assistant, making useful pocket-money carrying his cameras and flashes to, especially, matric dances and other functions. One I recall was to a black-tie dinner of the Friends of Rhodesia Society, held in a local hotel ballroom. Halfway through the speeches one of the luminaries rode a big white horse into the ballroom. I can’t remember why. The horse became a bit unnerved at the clapping and flashing of the camera and promptly crapped on the carpet.
In due course I became bored with all the chemicals and stuff and the delay between taking the photo and seeing the final print, and that’s when I saved up and bought my Polaroid instant camera. This is nothing fancy, its lens and optical doings being no better than my Brownie Box camera. But the film/paper/processing was unique. At great expense one bought a box of ten picture packs. These were inserted into the camera and exposed in the normal way. Then to make the picture one gripped a cardboard tag and slowly pulled the exposed paper out of the camera. This, in turn caused a roller to burst a little tube of developing gunk which was spread over the surface of the paper by a scraper and after a short wait one peeled off the cover to reveal one’s picture, the colours not quite right, and it faded in a few weeks.
All of that skill and knowledge is gone, today, of course. Robert’s carefully-posed black and white postcards, enlarged and developed carefully in our cellar, of the suburb’s domestic workers are now the yellowed and faded pictures of somebody’s grandmother or father, darkroom equipment is only found in a museum, and although Polaroid still makes instant cameras if you want a personal picture today you point your cellphone at yourself and take a “selfie” which will quite inevitably turn out to be a distorted picture of you and your friends looking imbecilic, the resulting image being instantly forgettable as a work of “art”. The best place for it thus is not on your grandchildrens’ wall or mantelpiece but in the electronic trashcan of a social medium such as Facebook.