He was imperiously intimidating. “What’s your brief son? What were you told to shoot? Who are you working for? This is just not good enough! I want to be photographed here; in front of the portrait of the old man!”. I didn’t argue. This portrait of Sir Warwick Fairfax is from a shoot for a John Fairfax Limited annual report sometime around 1980. I got the distinct impression he was disappointed that he couldn’t fire me, because I wasn’t a Fairfax staffer…
I’ve always thought it a little odd how some photographers have these intense love affairs with a specific camera. They become fixated on the Leica, or Canon or cheap Diana plastic toys. A sort of photo-erotic romance. For them no other camera will ever match their one true love which they elevate on a pedestal, often with the kind of hyperbole that if examined closely, should make them blush. For me, cameras and computers are simply tools of my trade. They do the job and are discarded without sentimentality if and when they fail to measure up.
In reality though, I’m not so different. I must confess that I once had a passionate affair with one particular camera. It was the Nikon SP. Manufactured in the late 1950s, it was a machine that took the best ideas from Contax and Leica and melded them into a camera that I think, was the absolute pinnacle of rangefinder camera development. I bought mine second-hand in 1971. It came with two 50mm lenses, and a 25mm wide-angle. The 50mm lenses were the superb little Nikkor 1.4 and the incredibly fast and bulky Nikkor 1.1.
So large was the front element of the 1.1 that its barrel filled most of the viewfinder area. Without a supplementary viewfinder you were practically guessing at what was in the frame. For this reason I rarely used it, but what triggered this reminiscence was seeing that there was one of these lenses on eBay the other day. It’s price tag: $40,000! I sold mine about 20 years ago for $600 (groan).
The Nikon SP was my walkabout camera. It accompanied me everywhere. Compared with my SLRs it was compact (when without the f1.1 at least) and with its Contax style focussing wheel next to the shutter release, was fast in use. I developed a deep affection for this machine, and still Nikon still hold this fore-runner of the Nikon F in high regard. So much so that about 10 years ago they ran a limited commemorative edition that was immediately snapped up by collectors.
When I lost my SP in a burglary in the 1980s, I went into deep mourning. For years, I gazed into pawn shop windows, hoping to glimpse my camera again, but eventually, I came to accept that it was gone forever. You can still pick up good examples of the SP on eBay for a couple of thousand dollars and I must admit that looking at them today, I was tempted. But then reality set in. I can’t bring myself to go back to film even for the love of my life. Now if only Nikon would produce the SP as a full-frame mirrorless digital with that superb 35mm F1.8 Nikkor, I could fall in love all over again.
If you want to know more about the history and qualities of this handsome camera, go here:
Here’s a couple of pictures from my Nikon SP.
Both of these pictures are spontaneous grab shots; the picture of the boy in the audience at the circus was shot under extreme low-light conditions. With the 1.4 wide open, I remember that the shutter speed for this was 1/4 second, hand-held, with my shoulder hard braced up against a tent-pole. I got off three frames, this was the only sharp one.
Publishing that 1960s photo of street children in Woolloomooloo a couple of days ago, led me to look through other pictures of mine from that period. In 1966 I travelled to London looking for experience on Fleet Street. I stayed five years, returning to Australia in 1971. Here are three pictures from that time. Never without a camera, pictures 2 and 3 were shot almost from exactly the same spot, within metres of the door of the basement studio I rented in Soho. Both were made in the moment I emerged into the street, on my way home.
I wonder, was the street life richer and more varied then? In hindsight, it seems so.
For many years, my son has sported long hair, just as I did in the 70s. For him, it was probably not so much youthful rebellion, but a reaction to a lack of thatch in his early years. He didn’t have enough hair to comb until he was about three years old. When he was finally allowed autonomy over his hair, he grew it down to his shoulder-blades. Being somewhat handsome featured (taking after his mother), it became a bit of a joke that he was continually being mistaken for my daughter. This was before he had developed facial hair. I used to tell him that if we were to travel together in future it was either grow a beard or get a haircut.
Well he finally followed my advice. Listens to his old dad, does my boy:-)
I shot this late last year. Kim has since grown his hair back…for those of a technical bent, I lit this using two banks of fluorescent lights that I used to use as light-boxes for editing transparencies. Stood on end, they give a beautiful soft light and great highlights in the eyes.
I made this picture 51 years ago, when Woolloomooloo was an inner-city slum of dubious reputation. Only a few metres away was the infamous red light area of illegal brothels, Chapel Lane. The poster for Vincent’s APC on the wall above the children, is of somewhat curious historic interest. Vincent’s along with Bex powders,were highly addictive analgesics containing aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine, When it was found that they caused serious kidney damage they were taken off the market in 1970.
“Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.”
― Susan Sontag