As I sit here about to hit “buy” on yet another new reader for compact flash cards I am feeling more than a little bit of deja vu. And when I say “deja vu” I mean multiple layers of it. Sure I’ve bought plenty of CF, SD and even PCMCIA card readers in my time and of course none of them has been perfect but that feeling is an identical replica of the feeling I get when I buy a new camera bag – it’s a complex emotion; optimism meets resignation as I want to think that “the one” that I am buying is as perfect as I long for it to be whilst knowing full-well that it is going to be just as disappointing and just as deeply flawed as the last one, the one before that and the twenty or more before that.
It appears to be part of the psyche of professional photographers that we have to seek perfection in the equipment that we buy and use without acknowledging that such a thing doesn’t exist and that it probably never will. In just the same way that there is a colossal amount of choice in the camera bag market, there are lots of different CF card readers out there. Where the two markets diverge is in the quality of the construction and the longevity of the products. I have camera bags that have lapped the world and lived in more car boots than I can remember and that are still perfectly serviceable whereas CF card readers are cheap, poorly made and don’t appear to be of professional quality at all.
It isn’t completely the fault of the manufacturers: the pin design on compact flash cards isn’t as tough as you’d like and the way that the current crop of USB3 readers with separate cables experience problems with the cable to reader connection would imply that it may be the USB3 standard that is at fault rather than the manufacturers quality control or design. This is backed up by the number of portable USB3 hard drives that are being reported as failing due to that same connection. It wasn’t always this way. I still have a couple of Sandisk Firewire 800 card readers that are as good as new despite having a hard life and being pretty much obsolete and the ancient PCMCIA reader that lives in a box in the loft was a proper professional bit of kit.
The accepted wisdom was that readers with removable cables were a good idea because the cables were the part of the kit that was prone to damage but that’s no longer the case. In an almost heretical move I am leaning towards the idea that built-in cables, avoiding the car crash that is the USB3 standard, are once again a good idea – and that is why my finger is hovering over the “buy” button because Delkin Devices have produced a reasonably solid looking USB3 reader with a built-in, chunky cable. Of course I’m resigned to the idea that there will be issues – this is one of those moments where optimism is high and the deja vu is strong.
“Street photography is back” was the title of an email that I received today. Funny, I never knew that it went away. Having said that, the current exhibition taking place at The Museum of London has given the genre a bit of a boost. There are so many great exponents of street photography working in London today that even I have to admit that it isn’t so much back as resurgent. This got me thinking about some of my own work from early on in my career. I remember sitting in my office one day and a very old friend rang me and asked if I have any pictures of street markets that his younger sister could borrow for a school project. I had a few but, in the absence of anything better to do, I went off to Leather Lane market and shot a couple of rolls of film.
At that time I was part of a small agency and we had a rapidly growing library of images that was starting to make us some money. Stock photography was a good marketplace back in the late 1980s and early 1990s and I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to add a few market pictures.
This was my favourite frame of the lot. Shot on a Nikon FM2 with a 35mm f2 Nikkor lens and Kodak Tri-X film – a copy of this print made on old-fashioned bromide paper still hangs on my own office wall. The reasons that I like it are many and varied but the fact that it was born of a simple request from a very good friend (in fact, two years later he was my Best Man at my wedding) gives it extra weight for me. The fact that it has made me quite a bit of money as a stock image certainly doesn’t detract from its appeal but the other thing that makes me love this picture is that it reminds me just how simple photography can be. A mechanical camera with a fixed focal length lens, no automation whatsoever and time. Street photography is all about opportunity and patience.
Waiting for the moment to happen is part of the way that I shoot anyway but I also spend a lot of time looking around trying to anticipate good compositions, watching for the way that light hits surfaces and people. I have a very clear recollection of how this picture was made. I had seen the man walk up through the market and grabbed a couple of frames of him as he walked and shopped. Then I saw this nice gap between stalls and concentrated on framing it and I have the same composition with at least five different people passing through. Finally the interesting person that I really wanted came back and I clicked one frame of him (no motor drives on my FM2s that day). The little black border around the print is the rebate of the film which means, for those of you who are too young to have shot much in the pre-digital era, that this is the whole frame as it was shot – no post production cropping.
When I scanned the print this morning I noticed that this was one of a short edition of hand-prints that I made of this frame and you can see the stamp and date that were on the back with my pixelated signature.
Simple and happy days but I don’t particularly want them back. Opening a box of prints brought back the smell of the darkroom and the associated cough rather too vividly. I haven’t made a black and white print in a traditional darkroom since January 1994 and I don’t miss it one bit!