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…
Tag Archives: vintage
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.
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
Now this isn’t about photography, though I guess it was driven by a nostalgia for the great picture magazines of the 1960s. Leafing through a 50-year-old copy of Look magazine (May 22, 1962) this morning, I became absorbed in a pictorial essay about Lenin, “The true story of the evil genius who launched the global Red threat”; then I put off the photo-editing chore that I had schedule by getting stuck in an op-ed piece by Senator Hubert Humphrey, “Big Business; Is it Too Big?”, and then procrastinated further with an article about a “secret” cure for arthritis (what happened to that secret cure?).
From the perspective of 2011, the cold-war dominated take on communism was fascinating; in hindsight Humphrey’s take on big business being the engine room of a healthy democracy (well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?) seems merely wishful thinking, in the aftermath of the recent financial crisis…and the one still looming.
But to me, the most absorbing aspect of this time-machine was the Madison Avenue, Mad Men style advertising of the day. The 1962 model Valiant marketed with a headline that reads, “Valiant-owned and operated by 364,000 independent Americans”. Motown magic! “Enjoy Life with Miller High Life; same good taste everywhere because it’s brewed only in Milwaukee…naturally“. Campbell’s Soups, “Why our soups look as good as they taste. They’re color-planned all the way from seed to simmer”>
However, the copy line of one ad just grabbed me by the throat for its lyrical quality. I must confess, this line has stuck in my head, ever since I bought the magazine in the St Vincent de Paul op shop in North Hobart, a year or two ago. I guess this is what good copywriting should do. But one has to wonder whether it resonates because of a filter of fifty years.
Has copywriting ever aspired to such poetry? Who wrote this? An enthusiast of haiku? Did it sell Pontiacs? Did its author stick to his craft? Or move on to write the Great American Novel? Was he a she? So many questions…while I
at passing Pontiacs
Now I reckon that’s powerful good copy And beautiful too!
I’ve recently been thinking about how a photograph can contain many levels of meaning. At the most basic level a photograph conveys its message from the objects within the frame and their relationship to each other. One of the hardest things a photographer must learn if their photographs are to be meaningful to others, is to separate themselves from the peripheral experience, the memory of the events and experiences surrounding a picture. Too often the photographer makes the mistake of thinking that the emotions that accompanied the making of a photograph are somehow automatically imbued within the picture. Only when you learn to be objective about your work can you begin to make good photographs.
Some months ago, the wife of a friend asked me if I had a photograph that might make a good gift for her husband’s 64th birthday. In the late 1960s, as young and irresponsible men, we had travelled together in Europe.
I went back through my negatives and found this photograph I had taken 40 years ago; it prompted me to think about the layers of meaning a simple photograph can contain. To the ordinary viewer this is just a picture of two men talking on a street corner in the early morning sunlight. Evocative enough in it’s own way, the astute viewer might guess that it is is somewhere in Europe; perhaps even deduce that it is somewhere in France. The picture is evocative enough in it’s own way; but to three people, it has layers of experience and memory that the ordinary viewer cannot possible access. This was the picture I decided would make the perfect birthday gift and I wrote this, a festschrift, as the Germans call it, to go on the back of the frame:
In the early spring of 1969, journalist, Tony Hewett and I persuaded Bruce Best that his soul would be spiritually enhanced by exposure to the sublimely soaring architecture of Antonio Gaudi. To be perfectly honest, his inclusion in this pilgrimage had a lot to do with the fact that he was the only one of our friends who owned a car. Tempting him with the suggestion that this would be a Tour de France Gastronomique, he took little convincing and soon we were ambling in his old Austin A 40 Estate, through the last of the spring snows of the French Hautes-Pyrénées. Barcelona bound.
With night coming on, we stopped at a plain but comfortable little hotel, in a tiny mountain village. The proprietor apologised that he was not prepared for guests so early in the season and all he could manage by way of food was some trout. The memory of that meal lingers as though it were yesterday. The freshest trout, grilled with almonds and served with a butter sauce, potatoes, salad, crusty bread and a flinty, dry, white wine. The stream, in which the trout had so recently resided, roared past just below where we ate.
After dinner we decided to walk off our meal with a promenade down the single street of the village. The night air was chill and hearing the rumble of conversation from a small, dimly-lit bar we went in to warm ourselves by the fire. Bruce suggested a Chartreuse as “un digestif” and soon we were deep into a comparative tasting of both the green and yellow liqueurs of those good Carthusian monks. Our indecisiveness over which was the better required several repeat rounds. At closing time, we tumbled back into the street and under a freezing, clear, starry sky stumbled back to the hotel.
We were woken the next morning by the sound of animated discussion beneath our window. Badly hungover, the hard light made us flinch. Below us, two men, one with the inevitable smouldering Gauloise glued to his bottom lip, the other in a classic beret, were chatting amiably in the slanting early-morning sunlight. I dived for my Nikon to capture this quintessentially French scene.
That my dear friend was looking over my shoulder when I made this photograph, means a lot to me. At a high point in our lives, this is where we were exactly 40 years ago. I hope it awakens many memories of that crazy, youthful expedition…to Barcelona and back…
Happy 64th birthday, Bruce…with love…
Rob, Hobart, Tasmania 2009.
As you can see this picture carries with it special memories for Tony, Bruce and me. They are inaccessible to anyone else…except perhaps in some small way, when the picture is accompanied by the text. It brings to mind photo editor Wilson Hicks’ dictum: “The basic unit of photojournalism, is one picture, with words“.