22 October 2016

Photographic Memories

As I turned the lever with my thumb I realised something was amiss. You’d often get an extra frame or two if you were lucky at the end of a roll of 35mm film, but as I watched the dial-counter spin from 38 to 39, then – crank – 40, then – crank – 41, then – crank – 42, there was no doubt about it. I’d misloaded my film. A 36 frame roll should never ‘wind on’ quite this far.

It was a tricky procedure and I wasn’t very familiar with this type of camera. I’d just graduated from a Kodak 110 camera, a device shaped like an old pencil box, which was designed to take the film in the form of a foolproof little plastic cartridge, to my first SLR (single lens reflex), a Praktica (from the GDR) – a real “grown ups” camera. Initially I’d fancied myself as the next Tim Page or Robert Capa. A glorious career as a famed photojournalist at the National Geographic clearly beckoned. But after this particular mishap I’d never come to feel completely at ease with the fiddly technique required to thread the end tab of a roll of 35mm film onto the camera’s ‘take up spool.’ It was a crushing introduction to the world of “grown up’s” photography (I was sixteen at the time). Not least because that precious roll of film then stuck inside the camera had been loaded ahead of a holiday to Egypt from which I’d only just returned. In my mind I ran through all the images I could remember carefully framing – of yellow sandstone monuments, faience blue skies, green palm trees, white sail boats on the shimmering waters of the Nile, orange fire-red sunsets – all of these sights, these special memories, were utterly lost. 

Well, maybe not completely lost. For the moment they remained etched vividly in my memory, but how long before those remembered images began to fade or start to get forgotten one by one? My despair was dampened by the advice that I should begin to twist the roll of film back into itself. That way, if there were any images at all, some of them might still be saved. I flipped up the little lever on the opposite side of the camera and began to wind, wind, wind, and wind ... It was hard to tell simply from the feel of it or even the noise, but – maybe it was simply my ever hopeful imagination – the lever did seem to be reeling something back in. I continued to twirl the little spool far longer than was probably necessary just to be sure before I flicked the catch and the back of the camera body sprung open. There was the roll of film all neatly wound back within itself. I dropped it off at the chemist and returned a few anxious days later to discover whether or not any of the images I still so vividly remembered taking had actually come out. 

I handed my slip of paper over to the man on the other side of the window and after a moment of rummaging through a drawer he handed me a large blue envelope. I ripped it open and took out a slim packet of prints. Astonishingly the roll of film seemed to have slipped around halfway through; perhaps the camera had received a heftly jolt at some point, or, perhaps more likely, my tenuous threading had simply come unstuck with the continual pressure of winding the film on after each frame? Whatever had happened, evidently all was not lost. 

As I flipped through the prints my heart, which only moments before had soared, was now in rapid freefall. Largely the prints were OK, but many were grainy, some too dark, some slightly out of focus, or the framing was a little skewed. The pin sharp memories I’d nurtured of each shot dissolved with the reality of looking at this half-salvaged handful of prints. Evidently I still had much to learn about the intricacies of lenses, f-stops, focal planes, depth of field, and camera wobble. Clearly this was technical stuff. And much like riding a bike it was something which had to be learned. At that moment I decided I hated machines.

But later on, after musing for a few days on this first photographic misadventure, I resolved not to give up. Philosophically I came to the conclusion that the best trip of my life so far wasn’t just about the photos – there was much more to the memories of that trip. It was a whole experience. There were sounds, smells, tastes, jokes, surprises, bemusements, mistranslations, camaraderie, sunburn – all sorts of experiences which I felt I’d never be able to forget. I’d written a journal during that holiday, in which, leafing back through its pages, I realised I had managed to record a myriad of things that no roll of 35mm film could ever capture. It made me wonder, what were these images after all? – Were they simply records and reminders to the self; a means of sharing one’s experiences with others who’d not been there; or validation, testament to the fact that I’d ‘been there, done that’? … Veni, vide, vici.

But still, I never gave up on photography. And there were two reasons for this: first, I come from a family of accomplished photographers (all of them far more accomplished than me), who were always unfailingly encouraging; and, second, because over time photography got immeasurably easier. When I say it got easier this is no reflection on my mechanical aptitude – I never did quite get to grip with f-stops, etc., but I did find the quality of the kit being used was key. That first camera had a lens I never really got on with; partly I think because of my poor eyesight, I always found it hard to focus this particular lens. A later set of lenses I used with my second proper SLR (a Nikon) were much easier to operate, and my first pictures using this camera were surprisingly good. The very first roll I shot on it was a real success – I took a series of photos of my brother and my (then) two year old nephew fooling around together on a visit to London Zoo. The Fuji film really brought out the greens of the weeping willow trees in the background which were nicely blurred out ‘in soft focus’ because of the use of a long zoom lens. I learnt from this and managed to get a similar effect when photographing a small statue in Tokyo a few years later.

To supplement my SLR, which at times could be quite unwieldy, I bought an Olympus electronic ‘instamatic’ camera which worked like a dream. It had auto-focus, which meant I could relax about my bad eyesight as the camera did all the necessary work for itself. I became very keen on black and white photography at this time – my Cartier-Bresson phase – and managed to do quite well with it using both my SLR and my little Olympus “point-and-shoot” camera. A small album of creditably arty black and white photos came into being.

I loved the grainy textures and the gradations of light. I loved the size and the smell of the little plastic 35mm film canisters. Popping the lid on a new roll was just as exciting as snapping the lid down on an exposed roll felt satisfying. I also loved the smell and feel as much as the look of real prints, and the way they aged too. I loved the smell, and just the atmosphere too, of my local camera shop. Photography was tactile, it was mechanical, it was creative and constructive. But it was always tinged with an element of chance. There was always that sense of fear and excitement at the unknown whilst waiting to collect a fresh roll of prints, particularly in those moments just before opening the packet for the first time – would they be any good?

There’s a lot to be said for experimenting. Sometimes good photographs are simply a matter of chance. One summer two friends and I were given a stack of free film and we resolved to use all of it with real abandon, just to see what would happen. Later, when we had the films processed, we weeded out the many dud shots (and there were many), but happily we found we were left with a sizeable stack of really good photos. That’s when I learnt not to be afraid of using the camera. You win, you lose; but in shooting off frames like that – without giving into any hesitation – you are bound to capture a few quality shots. We were mostly photographing people so that spontaneity was really key, and it paid off! … Of course, nowadays with digital cameras this is all much easier. You can happily snap away and then later on, at your leisure, review your photos while they’re still in the camera and delete all your duds. Edit as you go …

Initially I was quite anti digital photography when it first arrived. I hoped 35mm would hang on in there alongside it, but soon the high street chemists and photographic shops began to change, and fresh stocks of film slowly began to disappear. I bought my first digital camera in Japan, in Tokyo’s famous “electric town” – Akihabara. It was very small (tiny in fact when compared to my “small” Olympus), and very versatile (a Pentax Optio, alas now thoroughly worn-out from use). It set the pattern for me. From then on I’ve preferred the smaller compact cameras as they are easier to carry around, and as the technology has improved there are so many things you can do with them that previously you’d never have been able to do with a standard camera. I realise though that I could probably achieve a far higher calibre kind of photograph if I used a larger digital SLR and played around with fancy editing software, but it’s not quite the same. For the time being, keeping it light and unobtrusive is mostly my main concern, especially when travelling. 

Undoubtedly photography is a real art. It helps to have a genuine feel for it, a certain aptitude perhaps. How to frame an image; an eye for lines – symmetries and convergences; vanishing points, and depth of field; as well as a manner which doesn’t intrude upon or inhibit the subject (be it a person or a landscape for that matter), but instead having a modus operandi which helps put the world at its ease so that it can simply be itself and continue doing its own thing in its own way. Images are important, but a good photograph captures something more than memory or merely its surface. For all its convenience, digital photography isn’t quite the same. I do miss 35mm.

All the images accompanying this article (with the exception of the one showing my old Pentax Optio) are scans of photographs taken by me between 1992 and 2004 using the various 35mm cameras I've described above.

11 October 2016

A Life Without Books ...

I’m big on books. A life without books would be no life at all. I read every day. I couldn’t imagine a day passing by without me dipping into a book, no matter how briefly. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve never owned a television, there are far too many books to read (plus it’s easier to listen to the radio whilst doing the washing up than it is to watch a TV screen). I wasn’t always this way inclined though. As a child I preferred being read to rather than reading for myself. It was only later on that I began to enter into that solitary yet contented withdrawal which is reading for oneself. That propensity to absorb by listening is perhaps what later lead me towards the study of history and anthropology. And perhaps it’s also why I prefer the radio to the telly – they do say, after all, that you always get better pictures on the radio!

Not everyone is keen on reading. I once lodged with a friend who was far more interested in outdoorsy-type pursuits. I remember her incredulous exclamation as she returned one frosty Sunday morning from a bracing off-road cycle ride up and down the Chiltern Hills, only to find me several hours later sitting in exactly the same position on the sofa, cosy indoors with the same book in front of me. “You haven’t moved!” she exclaimed. But I’m sure I’d travelled just as far in that space of time as she had, except in a different way – with each turn of her bicycle’s pedals matched by the number of pages which had accumulated under my left thumb.
Needless to say, being such a devoted reader, my flat is stuffed full of books. But alas the space for an ever growing personal library is finite. The bookshelves I’ve set up here are groaning under the ever-accumulating weight. Nearly all the flat surfaces in my home are simply abhorrent vacuums which have swiftly been filled by piles of pages – books, magazines, off-prints, TLSs, academic journals, notebooks, guidebooks, dictionaries, etc. Given the limitations of space every-so-often necessity prevails and I have to thin my library down. This always poses a deeply difficult dilemma: Which books should make way for new acquisitions?

I attempted this task only this morning in fact, and was rather surprised at the outcome. I managed to clear a small swathe of tomes from a shelf which meant a stout pile that had recently accrued on the desk nearby (and which, very inconveniently, was preventing me from actually using my desk) slotted neatly into the vacated shelf space. My surprise wasn’t so much at the apparent neatness of this act of rotation, it was rather at the act of negation – Why was it, I wondered, that only now could I envisage living without these particular books which had once been deemed so important and integral enough to my life that they should have taken up permanent residence on my bookshelf? What had changed? Was that prior importance simply relative? Had I lost interest in the topics they were centred upon? Had I realised that other books in my collection covered the same subjects such that these ones were now redundant? … In this particular instance, I realised my re-classification was essentially based on what might best be described as ‘associative memory.’

As I scanned the rest of my shelves this realisation began to sink in more deeply. It struck me that most of the books I own, and particularly those books I’ve owned the longest, are in some way or another ‘associative tomes.’ In my mind, I don’t just simply recall them as being particularly good reads, although invariably this is almost always the case too; but moreover, I associate these specific books with people, places, or particular times in my life. The book may have been given to me by a dear friend or relation, or it might have been inherited from a certain family member, or it might have been bought or read in a particular place whilst travelling or at some other significant phase in my life. It dawned on me that reading wasn’t simply confined to what the words within those pages said – more often than not, when scanning the spines of those titles which I’ve already read, I realised I could almost without fail recall where I’d bought or been given the book, and also where and when I’d first read it.

As such then, I began to perceive that my library is caught in a constant ebb and flow of change. It regularly builds and reduces itself. It is continually being re-categorised and refined. Time and sensibility as much as utility and space are the main factors which regulate what is retained and what is lost. In essence my personal library is my life in the sense that it acts as a kind of mirror to my memory. The books of greatest value are not simply those which are or might be most useful to me either now or potentially in the future, but they are also those which are most important to my past and my-previous-selves as well.

Alberto Manguel has written a wonderful book which is a meditation on libraries – inspired by his own library, which he has lovingly lodged in a 400 year old converted barn in France – The Library at Night (Yale, 2005) is a paean to books, book-collecting, and the act of reading; examining the use, nature and representation of libraries throughout the ages across the world. Opening the front cover I see I’ve written my name at the top of the title page in pencil with the note “Tokyo, 2011.” I didn’t really need this aide-mémoire as I still distinctly recall buying this book at the big Kinokinuya bookstore in Shinjuku’s Takashimaya Times Square (over the years I’ve spent a small fortune there). I also distinctly recall devouring the book in the warm evenings over the course of a week or so that particular summer. Since bringing it home to my flat in the UK I’ve evidently not been the only one to keenly ingest this particular book as the tell-tale gnawing of a silverfish can clearly be seen on its spine (a literal ‘bugbear’ of my library as it’s currently stored in my flat is that it seems to regularly draw in these ancient gnostic little critters!). 

Wherever I go I always seek out libraries and bookshops. I’m particularly drawn to secondhand bookshops, as these are the places where one is most likely to find rare and unusual treats as readily as finding discounted treasures. This habit began whilst I was still at Sixth Form College, when I regularly used to take myself “up to town” to spend a day scouring the old bookshops along London’s Charing Cross Road as well as the famous ‘Ripping Yarns’ bookshop in Highgate. Many of these shops, as with the equally enthralling old bookshops in Greenwich, have sadly long since disappeared. Yet thankfully, there are still a handful of good secondhand bookshops still to be found in London; and, just as in my Sixth Form days, I still visit these regularly in order both to bleed my wallet and better insulate my flat for winter.

On a recent trip to Delhi I passed along a book market lining the street whilst making my way to the famous Red Fort, but it was in the small multi-level labyrinth of ‘Bahri Sons’ in Khan Market that I found the kind of books I was looking for. Likewise, I’ve found similar bookish enclaves in other cities too, such as the Bras Basah area of Singapore and Tokyo’s Jimbocho. I’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money in Jimbocho over the years, particularly when I was living for a time in Tokyo in 2009.

One of my favourites there is ‘Kitazawa Books,’ which is excellent for obscure academic titles as well as old Penguin paperbacks up on the large upper floor. I bought a wonderful old hardback copy of The African Queen by C. S. Forester, which had previously belonged to the library of the USAAF in Yokohama or something similar (sadly, despite the fact I lovingly restored the dust-jacket myself, the book never made it home to the UK with me). I also bought a gorgeous old paperback of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American there, which I read whilst travelling through the Mekong Delta in Vietnam that summer (which happily did make it back to my bookshelf here in London).

Another favourite there is ‘Oshima Books,’ which is particularly good for paperbacks as well as English literature and literary criticism. A pristine copy of Everyman’s 1000th title – The Metaphysics by Aristotle bought from here, as well as Basho and the Dao by Peipei Qiu, plus a little book on Grammar by Frank Palmer, and Conrad’s Romanticism by David Thorburn (which I read twice, but also never made it home either) stick in mind from there – as does my memory of the lady who runs the tiny little shop from a desk perpetually buried in books at the back, always wearing a worn-in looking old apron and fingerless gloves.

I wouldn’t be so surprised if other people felt the same – that books are bound up with time and place as much as they are with the self who collects and reads them. Books are much more than the tales or topics they tell. Books are a part of us, and just as I know I will continue to read everyday until my eyesight goes or I go, I know I will always continue to seek out libraries and bookshops – in the hope that one day I too might find my own ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ as in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel, The Shadow of the Wind, or Umberto Eco’s forbidden library hidden within the monastery in The Name of the Rose.  And, just as with Jorge Luis Borges’ labyrinthine Library of Babel, I shall continue to reshuffle, as well as reject and replace tomes from my own library as my memories of reading reconstitute themselves and settle down into the rhythms of constant re-classification which my life prescribes – like pebbles on a beach being shaped by the surge and pull of the tide. As time permeates and accrues through all the thoughts and feelings which I’ve derived from (or invested in) all those many pages which have so quietly accumulated in my left hand, so too my library is both the mirror of me and the world I have travelled. Indeed, this is why – for me at least – a life without books would be no life at all.

Further Reading:

Read my reviews of recommended bookshops in Taipei, Taiwan & Portland, Oregon for the LSE Review of Books