Meanwhile back in the UK – Photographic Developments

This is a column for the excellent Expatriate Lifestyle magazine in Malaysia. It was first published in June 2013

In the continuing tussle between your courageous columnist and the forces of technology, a minor victory this week; I have discovered how to access a picture cache on my mobile telephonic device. It seems to hold a large number of photographs of my ear, which I suspect also explains the intermittent background clicking noise regarding which I have been conversing with the manufacturers. (To whom, if you’re reading, please disregard my last letter, especially the paragraph beginning “Do you think I’m a complete idiot?”.)

And talking of photography, an associated victory, too, for the retail chain Jessops, whose market declined with the digital revolution and camera-phones; it has been saved from the bankruptcy to which it had seemed destined, so there is still a high street provider for those who want to use proper film. I am pleased by this, which may seem odd, because I have always had a sort of love hate relationship with photographs. To start with, I am not photogenic. The camera obviously adores some people, and is ambivalent towards many others, but in my case it clearly holds some sort of grudge.

Nor was I never particularly competent behind the lens, and not because I lacked focus. It was artistic ability that I lacked. Composition was something restricted to English lessons, and, for me, even keeping your finger out of the way and managing not to chop the subject’s head off bordered on the arty-farty. No, my pictures always had more negatives than positives, and competent photography was, shall we say, something of a dark room.

You would think, then, that the advent of the digital age, with its ability to delete those self-images that would frighten anyone of a delicate disposition – you should have seen the portrait which accompanies this column before a team of “photo-shop” experts had worked on it for a week! – would be something to be welcomed.


Before Photo-Shop

Well maybe, but I am pleased for Jessops and their customers because for all my conspicuous inability, there is something evocative about the old way of taking pictures that I think is worth preserving. There used to be real effort required, and I don’t mean getting that black cloth over your head and standing still for two minutes. To start with, film wasn’t cheap, so you spent good money every time you clicked and that meant you only shot what you thought would be worth keeping; a memento of a unique moment. Then there was the trip to the local pharmacy to have the film developed, and the anticipatory wait before collecting the pictures and poring over the results. Yes, they were usually a total anticlimax, alleviated only by the occasional (and dubious) “That’s not a bad one”, but it was an event in its own right; it was something that extended your outing or holiday into the real world to which you had returned.

Now there’s a camera in your phone, and all you use to capture an instant image is a few pixies – which I assume are some kind of laboratory-produced nano-elves – so there’s no money involved, and little discernment. People take pictures of their meals and post them online. Why, for goodness’ sake? In years to come, will they be as emotive as those sepia-toned photographs of long-gone relatives? Will the fascination induced in youthful eyes by ‘That’s your great grandfather, son,’ be similarly invoked by ‘Look, my boy, broccoli and a half eaten chicken leg.’? I think not.

I will admit, though, in a brief truce with technology, that the miniaturisation is impressive. When I was a lad I hankered after one of those spy cameras that would fit in a matchbox. It wasn’t that I had any particular spying that I needed to do, and if I did I would still have had to visit Boots to get the pictures, which I’m almost positive is not how proper spies did it, but I just wanted one because it was cool. Now you could get one that would rattle around in a matchbox; they even fit into a cat’s collar. Young Sam looked excited when I asked him if he wanted one – I think he assumed I was offering food – but I’m not so sure. I suspect the resulting photos would make close-ups of my ear look rather tasteful.

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