For my twenty-first birthday my parents bought me a 35mm, single lens reflex camera. I think it was a Fuji. I was taking a degree in illustration at the time and they thought,
Simon > 21 > artistic > art school > camera
It was very generous of them but I wasn’t very interested in photography. I hated fussing around changing rolls of film which were always, (of course, I was an arty-farty young man), black and white. I didn’t really know what to do with the camera or what to take pictures of. I was a terrible snob about pencils and drawing and ‘real’ pictures. How no one slapped me is still a mystery.
I gave up drawing long before I was thirty and became a graphic designer. In my late thirties I spent six weeks in New York and, on a whim, bought a disposable camera. New York, as you are aware, is a photogenic city. Something began to stir. For the first time in my life I enjoyed taking pictures. I was excited to collect the results from the print shop.
For my fortieth birthday my parents bought me an Ixis. It is the best present they’ve ever given me. Apart from life, that is. It was small and silver and slipped in my pocket easy as. You pressed a button and it would come to whirring life as the lens extended and retracted. Press another and a door would flip open and the film, enclosed in a shiny case, would slide out. I could slip a fresh one in just as quickly. It had a panorama setting which meant it cropped the top and bottom from the picture to give a large, elongated rectangle. I loved that panorama setting more than I love cheese, (which is a lot). This is the point I started taking photographs en masse. I took hundreds and began to teach myself what a good photo was. The secret, if, indeed, there is one and that I know it, is pretty much the same as the secret for drawing: LOOK. That’s it. Look at the world. Look at how it looks in a photo. Look at things, look at people. What is it you like, or dislike about them. What is the best way to show this? I spent hours studying the pictures I took.
I bought a Lomo. It was cheaply made and Russian and unsophisticated. It was like this but a third of the price. It was also cool and hip, marketed as much, anyway. It was more about atmosphere than precise ‘photography’. Pictures were blurred and grainy. I had them cross-processed, which distorted and intensified the colours and contrast, and I’ll always love Snappy Snaps for providing that service. I still increase contrast and saturation in my pictures. The Lomo‘s great line was that you should shoot from the hip, that’s how cool it was. I learned to take pictures without looking through the viewfinder. I’d point the camera in the direction of something and click. It added something spontaneous and unpredictable. It added a lot of emotion and atmosphere to pictures. There were odd angles and odder crops. We did a similar exercise at art school which involved not being able to see what you were drawing. I have hundreds of boxes of Lomo pictures under my bed. I loved that camera, too.
I bought a bigger and more expensive camera. Then digital became more affordable and I bought one of those and really started taking pictures. It was liberating not to have to pay for processing and printing. They were pretty low res compared to the camera I’m thinking about buying now but I could load them onto my computer and manipulate them in Photoshop. It started to become clear to me that photography is about picture editing as much as about picture-taking. First you edit out all the bits of the world that you don’t want to take a picture of. Then you choose the version of what you’ve seen. You crop the picture to give the result you want.
I bought a better camera and began a project, 999 Faces, that meant I had to approach strangers to ask if I could take their photo. I did this in several countries and more than one language. That’s me, that is, in the picture above, number 000. I like the way my hair looks in it. The project is complete.
Now I’m not designing as much as I used to and need other work. I love writing and taking pictures. That’s what I want to do. Last Christmas I made a pact with myself. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country until I put my photographic portfolio online. It didn’t seem like too high a bar to jump. Yet by May I still hadn’t. To break my block I started to see a career coach. Her name isn’t Jean but I’m going to say it is. The second time I saw her I told her I wanted to write about our sessions and publish them in a newspaper. She agreed but only if I changed her name. She wanted it to be about me, not her. That’s why I’m calling her Jean. It’s the name she uses when she doesn’t want to engage with someone. Maybe she really doesn’t want me to write about what we talk about. It’s not therapy but it is therapeutic. I have my forth session with her this week.
And two days ago I finally put my portfolio online. You can look at it here. My friend Andrea owns a lovely gallery in Belsize Park. Her assistant, Dani, is also lovely (and a talented singer, too). I often distract them from their work with my witter. A sculptor asked them if they knew anyone who could take pictures of her work. They suggested me. Me! I went to see Ros. We chatted about her work and the things we have in common. She has a daughter living in Tel Aviv and a son in Columbia, the country, not the university. I love Tel Aviv and have a neighbour who works at the Columbian consulate. I took a test shot and she asked me to take the pictures. One of the final pictures is below. I’m a professional photographer. I’ve done a paid job, so that’s what I am now. Here’s a link to the site where my work has been published.
I’ve always read, but only been serious about writing for six or eight months since I wrote this. I started that blog a few years ago as a vehicle for pictures I was taking of chefs and waiters. I wrote short captions for the photos which grew to be longer pieces about the restaurants and shops I went to. That piece about Israel was the first time I began to find my voice. I am a late bloomer. I began Things I Love… and my food blog, Siberia, to publish things I write. There’s no point, none at all, in making things if people don’t see them. You’re now reading something I loved writing. Last week I proposed some articles to a publication. I’ve asked a well-know food writer if I can interview her. She’s agreed. I’m going to write about her and try to sell the piece to a newspaper, a magazine, somewhere. I’m meeting two lovely, award-winning chefs this week to photograph, interview and write about. I’m surprised every morning how much I enjoy writing, how much I look forward to spending the day at a keyboard. We know so little about ourselves, sometimes. My life is changed. And that’s why I love Photography.