It’s fair to say that photography is in my blood. My father and grandfather were both keen photographers, the former becoming a professional after he retired in the early 1990s, and the latter being a generally very creative man. While they undoubtedly sparked my initial interest in photography, there were other influences around that time when I first picked up a camera. It was the start of the 1980s, and I was a young boy who loved science fiction, which might not sound like it’s relevant, but hear me out. Like most sci-fi fans, there is an inherent wonder and sense of ‘what would life be like if that were real?’ which requires some understanding of what is currently possible in the real world. An example of this connection between fact and fiction would be that era’s belief that everyone would own flying cars by the year 2000, because that was what we imagined the future to look like. Like everyone, young Fletcher was just beginning to show an interest in how things worked in the real world, while his imagination ran wild about what might be coming next in terms of technology. One of my early memories of that time is of listening to my alarm clock radio’s short and longwave bands at night, when I was supposed to be asleep, trying to pick up unusual broadcasts that might have included the police frequencies (allegedly). I was fascinated by the way that my radio could pick up these broadcasts mixed in with the likes of Noel Edmonds. In this era of technological discovery, which went on into my early teens, I also started to show an interest in cameras and taking pictures. There was something about capturing something fleeting that I liked the look of, and then seeing it on a piece of paper that I could look at whenever I liked. In those days, film was the only available technology, of course, which meant that every chemist sold and processed film, and there were many different formats to choose from. To be completely honest, I was drawn to the process of loading, shooting and unloading the film more than that of actually making photographs, although that magical revealing of the pictures once developed still excites me as a photographer in his 50s.
It would be wrong to say that any form of obsession with photography was born out of that time, because I had other things to distract me. Also, around the same time home computers were beginning to emerge, with our primary school being lucky enough to have the new BBC Micro for us kids to learn how to use. This machine was like nothing we’d ever seen before. As I got a little older, my parents bought me my own home computer, which introduced me to a whole new area of imagination and fantasy; the video game. Having my own computer meant that I was able to trade games, recorded onto audio cassette, with my school friends and that thrill of a new release making its way around a select few was palpable. Our little, if somewhat illicit, cottage industry took over from my interest in photography and my first camera, but it didn’t completely go away. As I said, my dad was, and still is, a keen photographer, which meant that every time the family had a holiday, celebration or major event, a camera would be produced, and the moments captured. I guess that is the single aspect of photography that eventually drew me in and that I continue to come back to today. Photographs have the power to help us remember, not just the details like where we were, or what we were wearing etc, but how that moment made us feel. I look back at pictures of my siblings and I on holiday and remember how it felt to be outside playing games, meeting other kids, and having fun. I’m instantaneously transported back decades just be looking at those pictures for a few minutes. Of course, the most powerful memories are the ones associated with now lost loved ones, and I am eternally grateful to have many pictures that invoke those memories, courtesy of the family archive.
My rekindled interest in photography happened when I was around 12 years old and about to move into the next phase of my education at ‘the big school’. I had already taken, and failed, the ‘11 Plus’ exam which was intended to determine which local secondary school I would be attending for the next few years. Thanks to my parents’ persistence with the local authority, I was able to avoid the less desirable ‘secondary modern’ school and go to a much better ‘comprehensive’ in a nearby town. With this came a challenge, though, as within a year I would have to prove that I was bright enough for that they called ‘A stream’. Kids in this group would get lots more opportunities to shine and were ultimately expected to go on to the sixth form. Why do I remember this so vividly? Well, because my parents told me that they would buy me a ‘proper camera’ if I managed to get into this group. I wasn’t a particularly academic child, so I had to work hard for that year to get into the A stream. When I did, I was bought my first SLR and was off and running, taking pictures of anything I liked the look of. I was still using that camera several years later when I went for my interview for my engineering apprenticeship, aged 16. One of the suggestions for preparation was to take something that we were interested in to discuss with the interview board. Having never previously had an interview, I put together a small album of photographs that I thought were my best, an early curation of a series as it turns out, and hoped for the best. We duly talked about my interest in photography, which at that point was fairly low level despite still having my SLR, and I remember being asked what my favourite kind of photograph was. They meant genre and I had no idea, winging the answer and hoping they didn’t see my lack of preparation written all over my face. When I was eventually accepted for the apprenticeship, I became more interested in motorcycles, getting my first so that I could get to work, cars, drinking and, well you can guess the rest. Photography was nowhere to be seen and effectively remained that way until I got married in 2001. My new wife and I were aware that we didn’t have a ‘convenient’ camera between us, with devices on phones a long way off to the horizon, and the film models we did have were a bit of a faff. Fortunately for us, the new era of digital cameras was in full swing, so we bought a compact point-and-shoot camera which relegated my SLRs (I had two by then) to the back of a cupboard. That little camera got me interested in composing and lighting, although my fascination with how the thing worked and the apparent magic of free ‘instant’ pictures that could be shared via email, was still my main interest at that point. It wasn’t until we planned a special trip to the USA in 2009 that things changed completely. Three weeks travelling around New England called for a proper camera, a DSLR. This what really hooked me into photography and, a few years and some excellent tuition later, my passion for this art form really started to flourish.
While this is all well and good, it can still hardly be called an obsession. That came in 2016 when a brief chat with one of my photography heroes sparked a desire to explore the medium in its purest form. I’m referring, of course, to going back to traditional film which I believed to be pretty much dead. I couldn’t have been more wrong as it soon occurred to me that, like vinyl records, film had never gone away, it had just been less popular. Like vinyl, but on a much smaller scale, film has enjoyed a revival, with the younger generations becoming interested in shooting with it. With so many old cameras in their parents’ attics and cupboards, it quickly became an accessible medium. I had been advised to take my time over the fine details of making a photograph, and that a way of doing so would be to use a manual film camera. Good idea, I thought, as I went searching for the right one. When I clicked ‘Buy Now’ on that well-known, but nameless, retail website, I had no idea that nearly 8 years later I would have a collection of 55 cameras, including that very first SLR that my parents bought me when I was struggling schoolboy. My fascination with how cameras work remains, but it now goes further than that. The cameras in my collection all have either a special place in photography’s history or some connection to my life and my memories, the former satisfying my technical curiosity, and the latter being like looking at one of those old family photographs. The memories are patchy, but the happiness of the time and the relationships to events remains strong because I remember the camera being used. I shoot all but 3 of the collection, only because those particular ones need repair, and I get to enjoy all of the film formats from sub-miniature to large. With the act of working with them rather than just admiring them, my engineering curiosity remains, and I’m always wondering how it’s possible that these old machines, the eldest of which was made in 1918, still work in a world seems to be much more ‘throw away’ than it used to be. I do have the odd camera that I consider to be ‘shelf queen’, a great description coined by The Film Photography Project in the US, but they have that status either because they are too fragile or that the film is too rare or expensive, or both. Regardless, the collection is both a showcase of cameras and a collection of very capable tools that help my creativity.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, because the following series of blog posts is going to walk through my camera history and explore the stories, memories, and experiences of having this collection. They are not going to be overly technical, nor are they the usual user reviews, as the internet is already filled with these. I personally find the focus on how good or bad a camera might be, should you buy one or not etc etc, really boring. Instead, these stories are intended for photographers and non-photographers alike because I know that we all have possessions that invoke similar memories and emotions. I hope that this series gives you an insight into what cameras mean to me, but also that it makes you think about your own memory-making and where photography might into that. Who knows, you might start using a camera, even if it’s the one on your phone, more regularly or in a different way. Either way, I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do.
Cover Photo: Etienne Girardet on Unsplash