My interest in photography came from playing with my dad’s old black and white kit.

My interest in photography came from playing with my dad’s old black and white kit.

I have been trying to write this post for a while and last year I made a great discovery which forced me to update my original version with this post which has a lot more authenticity, as you will see. 

Selfix 820 camera
©Richard Bowers Photography

In the previous version I used a stock  image from the internet to illustrate the first camera I used and relied on my memory to recall how the camera operated. However, while I was helping mum to find her digital photo frame we found, tucked in the back of a drawer,  complete in it’s leather case, Dad’s old Selfix 820 folding camera. And that is the camera that started me off. 

Dad had been keen on photography in his younger days and had a suitcase full of black and white photographs that he had taken with this camera, developed and printed himself with some pretty rudimentary equipment. 

Ilford Manual of Photography (1949)

I was always interested by the camera and the whole process. It just seemed like magic to me. Dad also had some old books including the Ilford manual of photography which contained articles on every aspect of photography. From developing the exposed film and making prints from the negatives through to what ingredients went into making the development chemicals. It was more useful than Google. Well perhaps not, but it was all I had at the time and it certainly contained everything I needed to know. I read it from cover to cover…. several times.  

In the ’70s Dad had moved on to super 8 cine film. He would film just about anything.  Family parties, Christmas, Weymouth carnival, me ‘sword dancing’ at school ( that sounds dodgy but it was the ’70s so what can you expect?) or just days out. Once he had used up all the film in the cassette, he would then send his Perutz film off to the lab for processing. ( Perutz is genuinely the brand name of the film he used. It made us kids laugh because Mum always used the word Proot as a euphemism for a fart. So, as you can imagine, Dad’s film brand was just a giggle-fest for my brothers and me).  

Perutz super film cartridge

About a week after he had posted it, the processed film would  return and  we would have the excitement of sitting down after tea and watching four and a half minutes of silent movie. Invariably the final frame would form a glorious image melt scene. These days that effect would be added in post production by some digital video editing software but this was a real effect caused by the end of the film getting stuck in the gate of the projector, overheating and melting as it was cooked by the projector’s bulb.

If Dad had several reels of the same subject he would splice them together into longer epics.  And so it is that my brother’s wedding is on a reel along with my Cousin Pam’s and possibly Janet’s?  Also, our early forays into sailing are on a reel that lasts about twenty minutes.  It features a lot of long shots of our GP 14 dinghy sailing away from Weymouth corporation slipway or towards Greenhill beech. There is some classic footage of my brother Adam and Tim Palmer sailing and capsizing Stew Barns’ scorpion 1261, Chough which I think I may have taken from our GP 14 with my older brother Stewart at the helm. 

Those family movies were great and I am lucky enough to still have them but Dad’s stills camera just sat, unloved and unused. Until …..well if I’m honest, I cannot remember if I ask to borrow it or if Dad suggesed that I have a go but somehow, I began using it. 

I wanted to take photographs of boats. Movies were difficult to use as study aids in those days as freezing a frame was not an option unless you wanted another melt on your hands so a photograph seemed like a good option. 

I started taking pictures during the winter and my first subjects were of very mundane. Leafless trees or boats wintering in boatyards. I had no idea about composition or perspective. To be honest I just wantedsomething to develop and print. I wasn’t trying to emulate Been of Cowes or Alister Black. In fact it was all fairly hit and, mostly, miss.

Exposure was a total guess without a light meter and I genrally estimated the shutter speed and F stop using the guidelines on the Ilford FP4 film packet.  I think 1/125 sec at F11 worked on a sunny day and  1/125 at F8 if it was cloudy. It was joyously simple and those were just about all the settings I used.

Focusing was more by luck than judgment too as there is no range finder, auto focus or through the lens viewing available on the Selfix 820. It was all about estimating the distance between the film plane and the object I was photographing. By using hyperfocal length and depth of field based on the dial on the top of the camera, plus a good dollup of hoping for the best, I did what I could to get things into focus. It’s a wonder that I managed to get any pictures at all! But I did and it taught me a lot about using a completely manual camera. Looking back it was actually a perfect introduction to photography

The selfix uses a 120 size roll film and has metal flaps inside to allow the photographer to choose between a 2 1/4″ square format ( ideal for Instagram) which gave twelve exposures per roll of film or 2 1/4″ x 3 1/4″ rectangular format (better for Facebook but who knew?) which gave only eight. Not having much pocket money in those days, I used the square format exclusively. The great thing about even this size of film, is that, by just using a contact printer, it was possible to produce a viewable photograph.

Apart from his Selfix 820, Dad also had some of his old  developing tanks, a contact printer and some ceramic developing trays. So after a quick trip to Kestins, the camera shop in Weymouth, to buy printing paper and chemicas,  I had everything I needed to create photographic masterpieces. 

I set up a very basic darkroom in the coal shed at the back of my parent’s house. Basic means it was dark and not much else. I set up Dad’s drafting table in there as a workbench and ran an extension lead from the kitchen to give me power for a light. That was all I needed. In those early days, I learned how to load the film into the reels and get them safely into the developing tank in complete darkness. A great challenge particularly if the film jumped out of the slots unnoticed in the dark, because this meant that instead of coiling neatly into the reel, the film was just making its way closer to the floor. Also, during my first attempt at loading a reel, my eyes became acclimatised to the dark and I noticed light seeping in from around the coal shed door. I wasn’t about to start modifying the door so I just turned my back on it to avoid the risk of stray light fogging the film and carried on.  For future attempts I opted to carry out my film development activities at night when it was dark outside.

Once the film was safely in the tank and the lid was on, I turned on the light and followed the advice from the Ilford manual to mix up the developer solution and the fixer and then set about developing my first film. 

My alchemy skills are not very advanced, Harry Potter has nothing to fear from me but fortunately, black and white chemistry is quite forgiving and after twenty minutes or so of inept, but hopeful, filling, emptying, rinsing, refilling and rerinsing, I opened the tank to reveal a strip of wet film which certainly seemed to contain some images. 

Once in the daylight the 120 size negative was large enough to see the images clearly and using Dad’s contact printer, a beautifully simple metal box with a light bulb inside and a rudimentary shutter to control the exposure, I was able to make some very acceptable prints. 

Photax contact printer

For the printing process I had an amber safe light which allowed me to see what I was doing while I put a negative and a piece of photographic paper into the printer. I then exposed the paper by opening the shutter for a prescribed number of elephants. Then came the great part of placing the paper into a tray if developer and watching the magic happen.. 

Timing how long to leave the paper in the developer was achieved by counting more elephants and after a surprisingly small number of pachyderms, the image started to form. By rocking the tray gently back and forth, I  made sure that the paper is always covered with fresh developer solution  and then, once the eliphants counting has concluded, I  tried to judge if the image had fully formed, Not easy under a weak amber light, before rinsing the paper in water and then putting it into the fixer. Fixing makes the photo safe to be view in white light at which point the photographer can turn on the main lights and take in the full splendor of the print.  

Now I have to be honest again and say that these were not works of fine art. Everything was guessed, I had no means of controlling the temperature of my chemicals and working in an old  coal shed was far from the clean environment you might expect for monochrome mastery. Also, elephants aren’t the most accurate method of time keeping, but to me,  those early prints were great. 

And that was just the beginning. Since then I have borrowed, bought and sold many cameras and had many adventures including a couple of cameras ruined by saltwater, a few fogged reels of film, printed many photos and I almost burned my parent’s house down when I moved the darkroom into the attic and lit it by a candle ( shhh, don’t tell Mum) but always managed to create some images, interesting enough to keep me fascinated, by the whole the process. 

Modern digital photography may be simpler in some respects but those days of film and paper were good fun.

To be continued…..

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