This could be anywhere. It’s not…
This could be anywhere. It’s not…
Sometimes you go out looking for things, and sometimes the things you want find you. My camera, or at least my favourite camera, falls into the latter category. There are many iconic items in the world: guitarists have the Martin D18 Dreadnought, drivers the classic Porsche 911, writers the Mont Blanc Meisterstuck fountain pen, fashionistas the little black dress by Dior. Photographers have the Leica M3; considered by many the best camera ever made, and voted by eBay and Stuff Magazine, the top gadget of all time. Launched in 1954 it was the choice of many photojournalists, including the great Henri Cartier-Bresson, and one of my major inspirations, James Ravilious. Some of the most famous photographs of the 20th Century were shot on a Leica M3. This is mine, a pristine example from 1959.
For a few years I’ve been regularly shooting and documenting the busy market in the town I’ve made my home, Abergavenny in South Wales, UK. One Wednesday a couple of years ago I was, wandering around the weekly Collectors’ market looking for shots and bargains, when an elderly man who I vaguely recognised approached me, and seeing the Olympus SLR hung over my shoulder, asked “Is that a film camera, butt?”, butt being the Welsh equivalent of mate. I replied that it was, and that I’d recently returned to shooting film after several years of shooting digitally. He told me that he had a lot of film cameras, and started to talk at length about them. Initially my heart sank a little, as I’d seen him previously buying a cheap camera from a stall holder, and I had visions of being stuck for an hour or so discussing Kodak Brownies and other similar cameras. When however he started to list all of the cameras he had, my jaw hit the floor. Obviously a hoarder, with a phenomenal knowledge of photography, his house sounded like a museum, filled with many things that I’d never seen before. I gave him my card and said that I’d love to visit one day just to look at what he had.
Several months went by, and having not heard from him, I had forgotten about our meeting, when once again I bumped into him in the market. This time he was keen to sell me a medium format film camera that he wanted to get rid of, but having recently bought one, I wasn’t in the market for another. A couple of days later I received a text message from one of the stall holders saying that Mike, the elderly gent, was his friend, and he wanted to tell me about some other cameras he was selling. Again I wasn’t in the market for more cameras, but agreed that my number could be passed on. A few minutes later Mike called and said he wanted to scale down his collection, and was I interested. I wasn’t, but curiosity got the better of me and I asked what he was selling. The first two, a Nikon and a Contax, both superb cameras, didn’t interest me, but then he said he had a Leica M3, my dream camera, and sadly way out of my price range. I told him this, but asked if I could look at it, as I’d never actually seen one in the flesh. We made a vague arrangement, but half an hour later I just needed to know how much he was asking, so I texted him to find out. When he responded that I could have it for £750 and that if I wanted it I could pay over three months, I knew I had to have it. I turned to my partner and told her what I’d just been offered, and even she as a non photographer knew that I couldn’t afford to turn it down. I texted again and said that I’d be there at the weekend to look at it.
I arrived expecting to be handed a camera in poor condition, but not only was it immaculate, but it came with its original leather case, a light meter, several books, and another carrying bag. To hold it is to realise why they are so sought after. Modern cameras, even professional spec ones, somehow feel plasticky and cheap. Every part of this is hand crafted from steel and brass. It oozes quality. Leica have said that if their modern cameras were built to this standard, they would have to retail them at almost $30,000!
It’s difficult to explain how it feels to take photos with a Leica M3, but the closest I can get is to say it feels like you are shooting with history. It lends a gravitas to your photography; it’s a talking point when I ask people if I can shoot a portrait. I’ve been stopped in the street when people have doubled back to look at it. Last year I was taking photos of an agricultural show for a local paper when a man caught my eye because I thought he’d make a good portrait. After I’d taken his picture, he introduced himself as Harry, and said it was an honour to be photographed with a Leica. He then called his wife over to look, and asked her if she recognised the camera. She smiled and said of course. She had been Henri Cartier-Bresson’s assistant in Paris in the 1970s. Serendipity…
If I’m lucky, a digital camera will last around five years before it starts to become obsolete. My Leica is sixty-one years old this year, nine years older than me. My eldest son is going to university to study photojournalism; one day it will be his, and if looked after, there is no reason he could not hand it on to his child. It truly is an icon, and one of the very few material items I’d rescue if the house was on fire.
I was recently invited to submit to a landscape photography competition entitle Sticks and Stones, by Thru The Lens Gallery in Hay on Wye, UK. As a documentary photographer I wanted to explore the theme and bring a relevance to not only the geographical location, but also plant the remit firmly in the now. When I drive from my home in Abergavenny, through the glaciated landscape, further moulded and formed by the touches of man through quarrying for industry, and the vast plantations of larch trees used for pit props in days gone by, it is very obvious how both sticks and stones have contributed not only to the local vista, but to the economy of the area for centuries. The valley floors are criss crossed with rivers and streams, which needed to be forded and bridged in order for the natural resources of sticks and stones to be fully utilised, and of course those very same materials were used to construct many of the fine ancient bridges that we all cross regularly and take for granted, as they stand steadfast down the years in the face of relentless erosion from that other natural asset that the area has in abundance, rain water. Times they are however a changing’. Climate change is the hot topic of debate, and whether you believe it’s a natural phenomenon, or one exacerbated by man, the floods are getting more frequent, and the damage to the bridges more noticeable. These photos were taken last week on Lanfoist Bridge in Abergavenny, the day after the latest floods subsided. The previous day, water levels were ten feet higher, as a month’s worth of rain fell in 24 hours. The raging torrent stripped the landscape upstream, and washed the debris from previous flooding inexorably towards the sea; sticks and stones now used as weapons against the very structures that centuries before, they built. There is a Chinese proverb; if you sweep Mother Nature out of the door with a broom, she will come back through the window with a pitchfork. There is an irony, even a poetry, that in taming the landscape, we have inevitably contributed to the forces of nature that will in turn, return the natural resources that we harnessed, back to the land. In these pictures, Mother Nature’s pitchfork isn’t made of the traditional wood and iron, its made of Sticks and Stones.
I’ve been an avid follower of politics and Parliament for many years. Yesterday was the first time I have ever had to walk away from the screen because what I was watching made me so angry and so ashamed at those who govern us. In the wake of a Supreme Court decision ruling their actions unlawful, instead of acting with humility, the government went on the attack. Geoffrey Cox was arrogance personified. Here was a man who has been deemed to have given incorrect legal information, the top lawyer in the land, pompous and preening like a public school prefect, strutting like a peacock and patronising anyone who dared ask a question, like some petty martinet from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
When it looked like it couldn’t get any worse, up stepped our PM, the racist, homophobic, islamaphobic, serial liar, invoking wartime rhetoric with references to surrender and humiliation. He trivialised the death of Jo Cox at the hands of a far right murderer, and he dismissed claims of threats and abuse against female MPs as “humbug”. This man is not fit to be leader and the truly shocking thing is that supposedly intelligent people are supporting his actions. He demeans us as people and he demeans this country as a nation.
There is every chance that history will look back on Johnson’s speech yesterday in the same way it regards Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech.
He’s a historian, and knows this of course, which is why he aims his populist words at those who would have agreed with Powell in the 60s.
A truly shameful day.
In October 1966, when pregnant and carrying me, my mother who had done her nursing training in Cardiff and the Valleys in the early part of that decade, was driven to Tredegar from Surrey by my father, a journalist, to visit one of her old colleagues in Tredegar. Whilst they were there, the Aberfan disaster happened, killing 144 people, 116 of them being children in the primary school. The cousin of my mother’s friend was a teacher in the school, and one of those killed. My father was one of the first non local journalists on the scene. Last week, on a dark and drizzly day, I took them to the cemetery for the first time. An incredibly moving experience
This is my camera bag. It’s a Billingham, and they are legendary amongst photographers, not just because they are superb quality, but because most of the famous photographers of the last 50 years have used them. I bought mine new for around £120 almost 25 years ago, and it’s been almost everywhere with me since. I’ve stitched it where it’s worn, and had one of the straps repaired, but it’s still totally waterproof, and I love it.
Yesterday I was in a reclamation yard in Somerset and I heard a man mention my bag to his wife. I smiled and we struck up a conversation about photography, they admired the 1959 Leica M3 around my neck, and I took their photograph. We spoke about the bag and I told them how much I liked it, and what we’d been through together. They were really interested, so I also showed them a very old and rare press photographers’ version, a larger model for bigger cameras that I had in the car.
The couple then introduced themselves. They were Martin and Ros Billingham, who started the company in the early 70s, and still own it today. I’ve met bag royalty!
I went out in town this morning with a camera but didn’t really feel very inspired. I spotted a guy, rather incongruously dressed in brand new Dickies dungarees (stopping somewhere short of his ankles). I thought about asking him for a portrait but passed on it. This afternoon I went for a ride and felt better, when cycling across the meadows I spotted the same guy, this time dressed in a PVC Naval trench coat walking towards me. This time I stopped for a chat and to ask him if I could shoot a portrait. He was very obliging, and told me that he was from Brighton, and was visiting his parents’ graves. After a while he very casually dropped into the conversation that I may or may not have guessed that he was very into the “Rubber and Leather Scene”. So there you have it. Two middle aged men, standing in a field, one dressed in PVC, the other in Lycra, chatting about the fetish scene in Brighton (he knew a lot more about it than me!). Only in Abergavenny!
I spotted Kyle from the back and asked if I could photograph the tattoos on the back of his head. He was very happy to let me do so and then he told me he was ex forces. He lifted his jumper and showed me where he was shot in the back by the Taliban in Afghanistan aged 18. A deep entry wound, the bullet ripped through his abdomen leaving him with a colostomy, and a large laparotomy scar which he has embellished with a zipper tattoo. He laughed when I said “wow, thats brilliant”, professional interest and the chance of getting a good photo, clouding my judgement of response, perhaps. Now 27, he spoke to me about how this had affected relationships, but it was stoma for life, or death. He was incredibly open and very positive. He has one bullet tattooed on the back of his head for each friend who died in active service. Its easy to judge a book by it’s cover, and I wonder how many would see him standing by the war memorial and jump to conclusions without ever knowing the truth behind the man they assume him to be.
After some great exposure last month, great to see the first of my monthly columns, Photography in Focus, in The Focus magazines.
Blorenge, an imposing lump of rock adjacent to Abergavenny in South Wales, is a mountain shaped by the dual forces of glaciation and man’s industrial past. Crawshay Bailey was an iron master who grew rich beyond even the wildest dreams of most of the locals who toiled and died young, quarrying and working the coal and iron ore found locally, into the raw materials that drove the industrial revolution.
The tell tale signs of early industry are found all over the mountain, in many cases adding to the desolate beauty of this bleak place.
I’m currently working on a long term project shot digitally and on film, exploring how man has affected the Iron Mountain, from disused tram tracks and tunnels, to the crumpled shells of cars dumped by the indiscriminate over the sides of long deserted quarries. The mountain may no longer boom to the crashes and clattering of industry, but it still breathes. As Neil Young once sang, rust never sleeps.