I’ve taken a lot of photographs down the years, and had a black and white darkroom in the attic of our Dorset house. It was a place of joy and despair. Joy when I managed to produce what I hoped was a perfect print after a number of failures – Ilford matt photographic paper was prohibitively expensive – and despair.
Picture me: I’m standing in the dark swearing myself hoarse, trying to feed my latest prize film into the plastic developing spool. My fingers fumble, I stink of sweat, and I’m pressing and pushing at the thing, knowing that the negatives with my precious pictures have just slipped out of my hands and are collecting dust on the floor. Beyond rescue. It was a rite of passage for every black and white photographer.
This was the pre-autofocus and exposure era. I had a Pentax SV, a lovely camera. It was little more than a solid, reassuring metal case to carry the film with an attached lens, and no battery and no electronics. To calculate the exposure I used a Weston Master meter, another beautiful device. You point it at what you want to capture, get a reading and transfer it to the camera settings. Easy? But that wasn’t the end of it. You then had to work out if you were shooting against the light or with it, and compensate by stopping up or down. Once I tried Ansel Adams’s influential zone system. You allocated the various gray tones in your chosen scene to one of ten specific zones. It was fiddly and totally maddening. It worked well in Californian sunshine which rarely alters in intensity from day to day. But here in England it wasn’t so successful, because by the time I’d done all the maths and clicked the settings on the camera the weather had turned round making the light and shadows completely different.
And then the complex palava in the darkroom: developing the film, fixing it, and working out the correct number of seconds to give the print under the enlarger light, helped to a point by a series of test strips. But, nevertheless, I often wasted half a dozen sheets of paper before I achieved what I hoped was an acceptable print.
Digital photography, when it came along, made life ludicrously simpler. You press the shutter and rely on the camera to focus and calculate the exposure. If the image is disappointing and suffers colour shift or is too dark or too light there’s always Photoshop to sort it out. I became a dab hand at the program, and it helped correct a multitude of mistakes – and my own ineptitude.
I always printed my photos at A3+ size, and had a wonderful inkjet that produced perfect prints almost every time. But I failed to use it for a few months and the jets clogged and proved impossible to clear. So I bought a second-hand extra printer – a professional quality machine – but again the jets were prone to clogging, and both printers ended up unused and moribund under my work bench.
Since then I’ve grown tired of taking hundreds photographs on walks and trips and seeing them only as pixels on a screen. I’m now buying a new A3 printer with the aim of trying again. And to help reconnect myself with photography I’ve been scrolling through the thousands of pictures stored away in God knows how many folders on my computer.
Below are some images I took several years ago during the rebuilding of the quay in a port in the West Country. For several months the quay was a chaos of rusting steel bars and building materials, all stacked haphazardly. Early morning and late afternoon, when the sun was low in the sky, I made a series of abstract studies, poking my modest Fuji camera through the wire mesh fence, focusing on detail. I show a few of them here. It was an enjoyable and exhilarating project.
I also waded out into the River Torridge with thick estuary mud up to my shins, and stood alongside some sad, abandoned hulks. I’d go in close with the lens to capture flaking paint and fragments of rotting wood and metal. Three of them are shown here.
They’re not great art, but it was fun taking them. Photography makes me look hard at things, and I’m hoping to start again and see what turns up.