So, the other day I bought myself a birthday present. Well, technically a pre-birthday present. I went onto ebay, and purchased a camera.
I used to enjoy photography, as a kid. Throughout my preteens and teens, I regularly had a camera nearby, and enjoyed the process of photography: framing the scene, judging the composition, taking the subject unawares. As I got older, it fell away as an activity. Cost was an issue, but so was interest in other things.
If I’m honest, I don’t really know why I stopped. I know there was some dissatisfaction with the process, some product envy. Compact cameras were in; digital was beginning to be a real possibility; autofocus SLRs were the big thing. I had an old, early Minolta autofocus which didn’t do what I wanted. Plus it held my hands too much, and I began to be lazy…
I dunno. Maybe I just wanted to have the shiny new toy. I’ve always been too much of a sucker for advertising. I wanted a shiny Cannon or Nikon SLR, with the zoom lenses that now seem so common, but were then so new. My camera didn’t have spot metering, or five-point autofocus, or a zoom lens. My camera wasn’t good enough; a compact wasn’t (and still isn’t) good enough. I was suckered – sold on the feel and the lifestyle and the act of seeing through the lens. When I went to University, I didn’t take my Minolta with me.
During my time in London, it only got worse. Digital SLRs came onto the scene. But instead of being £100 out of my price range, these were £500, or £1000 more than I could afford. So, as usual, I lusted from the sidelines and stopped thinking about it. On occasion I would borrow a friends SLR or compact, for a party or a trip or just to play, but most of the time I lived vicariously through the photos of other people, and became one of those people who don’t take pictures.
But there has always been a part of me that remembers, thinks back. That wants to be Amelie with the Polaroid, or Ansel Adams on the mountain top. That wants to be capturing and creating something beautiful with the turn of a bezel and the press of a button.
While I was at l’Abri I met many wonderful people, including several photographers. Mary Frances and Kari with their amazing candid shots of people, capturing the characters so well. Marcie with her resurrected old cameras, lovingly crafting every single shot, not knowing if any would work. Julia with her Polaroids, little off-colour frames of wonder. Phil, with the old manual SLR, creating incredibly evocative black & whites…
They were all so inspiring. As we left and went on our separate ways, that inspiration stirred a hunger in me. A desire to get out there and try again, to see if I could create something as beautiful as those images I’d seen…
Then my good, wonderful friend Anna picked up her dad’s old camera and had a go. With the same inspiration as me, with the beautiful and quirky town of Portland to explore, she stepped out and went to see what would happen. Well, some really great black and white shots happened, that became gifts and surprises, sent in the post to friends around the world.
If Anna could do it, why couldn’t I? So I picked up my dad’s old camera and…
Found that it had no batteries.
A quick trip to a camera shop revealed that the battery compartment was corroded, and that new batteries would not help. In this old camera, no battery meant no meter, and more importantly, no shutter. It was dead. My first attempt to get back in the game had been a failure.
That was back in May. For most of my summer in Birmingham, I was living with the intention, the hope, that very soon – maybe the next week – I would get a job and be moving. I wasn’t planning to stay around. Maybe next week I’ll move to London. In London there are second-hand camera shops and market stalls; I can find something there… So I waited, and put off the idea for a while.
But a germ of a thought had been planted, which was to find a body that could take the lenses from my dad’s camera. Over time, with a bit of occasional internet searching, I settled on the Pentax ME Super. It was a great little camera in its day, fondly remembered. They were popular, and well made. There are lots of them out there…
Come September, and I’ve decided I’ll go for it. It’s my birthday – I can treat myself. I bid on ebay for a couple of items and, as always, pay a little too much for a camera of un-guaranteed quality. It arrives the day before I pack to go to Chichester to start my new life.
Open the package. Hold it. Feel the weight. Press the buttons, turn the knobs. Open the door, examine the mechanisms, the seals, all the details. That nervous anticipation – the delight of having a new toy, mixed with the fear of whether or not it is a good buy. Will I be happy or will I regret?
There was no cap covering the mirror box, and the insides are very dirty. I try and clean inside with the cleaning cloth for my Mac, but the foam seal at the front edge disintegrates and some of the residue ends up on the focus screen. Or was it already there? I don’t know…
I find a small airbrush and a lens cloth in my dad’s camera bag. I remove the dust and dirt from the film chamber, and the remaining dust from the mirror box. I try and clean the focus screen with the lens cloth, but all that happens is it spreads the residue around.
Putting on one of my dad’s lenses and looking through, it’s all a little blurry, but it basically works. I’m not happy though. The camera wasn’t expensive, but it’s still the most expensive ‘new’ thing I’d bought in a while. And I’m not sure if it will do what I want it to do…
I pack the camera, the lenses, the yet-unused film into my bag, along with everything else, ready for the trip south. It waits there until I am in my current abode, when I put it into a draw. Safe. Out of sight.
I don’t know what to do. The light is beautiful; Chichester is gorgeous. I want to get out and explore, to take pictures, but there is much trepidation. I haven’t taken pictures in a long time. I’m not sure I remember all the rules about aperture and shutter speed and focal lengths… And I want to get it right. I don’t want to waste precious film.
I take the camera out of the draw a few times. Put a lens on, look through, play at changing the controls. Get confused by the manual film advance. Man! I haven’t used one of these in years! There’s no film in yet, and as I look through the viewfinder, I’m bothered by that smudged screen. Very bothered. The camera goes back in the draw.
As I explore the town, I find a couple of camera shops. The first one I go into (without the camera) is very helpful. He identifies the problem right away (the disintegrating foam), and says that it might be permanent damage. “The only thing you could try, is to clean it with a fluid that will dissolve the glue. You could try isopropyl alcohol. You can get it from a chemists…”
I thank the man, go to the chemists. They have it, but the bottle is huge. I only need a few drops. I leave it.
The next week I go to the other camera shop and ask them about it. I take the camera with me. They look at it, examine it, look through it. Consult among themselves. Say that there is nothing that can be done. “It’s permanent damage. But you can still see through it; you can still use it.”
I’m annoyed. I want my camera to work. I’ve been thinking of doing this, of following Anna’s example, for months.
So I do something foolish. I believe the guy in the first shop. I go back to the chemists and buy the big bottle of isopropyl alcohol. And a pipette, and cotton buds. A 500ml bottle for maybe 5ml worth of work. Seems ridiculous, but I want my camera to work!
I go home and try. The first couple of applications I brush against the seal and make the situation worse. So I try again, apply more.
Every application seems to be making things worse. But I keep going. Fool.
Now that the dust has settled, the residue evaporated, the “tools” put away, I can see the results. I have cleaned up the glue residue. But I have also stripped away the top layer of the focus screen. The two segments in the middle of the screen that actually let you focus are broken. You can’t see them move properly. And the rest of the screen is… well, it’s less blurred, but not by much…
I’m now left with a camera which may be impossible to focus accurately. It will take pictures, but in all likelihood it will take pictures that are slightly out of focus, unless I am very lucky. Not exactly my dream of crisp, clear, artistic shots.
I go back to the (second) camera shop. The focus screen could be replaced, but it will cost me nearly twice what I paid for the camera. Best bet? Go back to ebay and see if I can get another, in better condition this time.
I still haven’t put film in the camera yet. I haven’t fired a shot. I don’t know if I should. Do I risk it and see what happens – join in with Marcie’s spirit of photographic adventure? Or do I trawl the marketplaces and second-hand shops for an alternative body? Or do I wait until I have a little more saved up and buy the DSLR I’ve always wanted?
Will the saga continue? I just don’t know right now…