My love affair with photography began when I was seven or eight years old, and a relative gave me a Polaroid instant camera as a Christmas gift. It’s not like I was struck by a bolt of artistic inspiration or anything. Still, it seemed magical to me; the clicking of the shutter, the whirring of the apparatus, the seemingly mystical act of the images appearing before my eyes, like ghostly figures emerging from a fog. I still remember taking pictures of just about anything and everything that day, and even vaguely recall some of the images I caught. The artificial pine tree was loaded with tinsel and lights. My sister’s mangy cat was sitting on the railing of the balcony. My usually-angry father was wearing a goofy, sheepish smile and a paper Christmas cracker crown. With the viewfinder before my eyes, the essence of reality was ever so slightly but irrevocably altered. Definitely, it was the most memorable and significant present I ever received during my childhood, and I’ve rarely been further than an arm’s length from some form of camera ever since.
Truth be told, I’m a pretty bad photographer in a lot of ways. I have no real understanding of, or interest in, the technical aspects of the art form, such as shutter and aperture priorities. I did join a camera club in my freshman year of high school, and learned some basic stuff, but I soon lost interest and dropped it the next year. For a couple of years in university, I turned the bathroom of my basement suite into a makeshift darkroom, and started developing my own black-and-white photos, which was fun, but involved a bit too much work, organization, and chemicals (not the fun kind). A dedicated artisan, I am not.
Which is not to say that I don’t have the deepest respect and admiration for true photographic artists and craftsmen. Over the years, I have put together a small but decent collection of books by some of the greats, including Diane Arbus, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Even some of my favourite records have been purchased for the photo images on the covers and gatefolds. Primary among these are the wildly eclectic pics on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, and the great Robert Mapplethorpe’s elegant monochrome image for the cover of Patti Smith’s Horses.
I don’t know how many tens of thousands of pictures I’ve taken over the years, both analog and digital. Enough to fill many steamer trunks and hard drives, I have no doubt. The majority of them have been lost or have dissolved in the ether, which is just fine by me. Few things are meant to last. And, most of the time, I’m not overly invested in the actual quality of the images I take. The joy for me lies in the immediate spark of trying to capture some tiny, fleeting moment of life. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. My experiments with single lens reflex cameras have always been particularly sloppy. So many of the pictures I have taken are poorly focused, poorly framed, under- or over-exposed. I recall taking pictures of barbecue in a friend’s backyard that were so accidentally over-exposed that the partygoers looked as though they had been captured during the flash of an atomic bomb detonation.
But I have never lost the thrill in taking pictures. And every now and then, a touch of magic happens. A line of faux-classical statuary that looks carved from moonlight. A witchy-looking winter tree with its branches laden with ravens. A beam of sci-fi light bursting from the Eiffel Tower. Brilliant enough for me.