I can’t say that I grew up in a photographic family, but I did very much grow up in the age of the Kodak snapshot. Most households had at least one camera. They also had lots of printed photographs, in wallets, boxes, and albums. The boxes of photographs particularly impressed me. I loved rummaging through the old black and white prints of family. I guess that my family were pretty typical. I’m sure that I remember some old camera in a drawer that use to belong to Dad, and I saw photographs of him as a young man holding or carrying cameras. However, Dad spent literally everything that he had spare on us kids. In 1968/9, he did buy himself a Super 8 cine movie camera to record us – other than that, the cameras that I remember were ours.
My earliest camera was a Kodak Instamatic 25. I recently bought another that I spotted at a car boot sale out of pure nostalgia. Just the feel of the body and shutter release brought back memories. I guess it must have been around 1971, when I was about nine years old. I remember laying in the grass, trying to photograph a herring gull nearby, on a family holiday in the Isle of Man. I also recall packing it into my bags for a school trip to London, and taking pictures of ducks in a London park, and pigeons at Trafalgar Square.
Instamatics were Kodak’s replacement for a sixty five year old line of Brownie cameras – snapshot cameras for the family and even children to use. My Instamatic had two stops – sunny and cloudy. A hot shoe fitting for a strip of one-use flash bulbs. Fixed focus only, and with a viewfinder. Whereas the Brownies had used medium format roll film – 120, 620, and then 127, the Instamatics were designed to use Kodak’s latest user-friendly film format – the 126 film cartridge. A black plastic encased, paper backed 35mm film that forwarded from one square frame to the next and did not require rewinding, it embodied Kodak’s long tradition of making photography cheap and simple to use.
If I had enough pocket money, I could afford Kodak colour film. Otherwise I’d have to manage with cheap black and white. The excitement of opening a wallet of square photographs, picked up from the chemist. I loved the smell that burnt out flash bulbs generated. What would we have done without George Eastman and his Kodak company?
A few years later, it was the Polaroid. Elder brother, sister, then I got one. Big bodied, I remember squeezing around the shutter button (did that set the focus or exposure), then clunking down. This was followed by holding on firmly to the camera strap, while ripping out a wallet of strange smelling chemicals and plastics. In minutes of counting mississippi’s, I could peel out an instant print – still wet. There was so much waste material! Photography couldn’t get much easier and faster than this though, could it? Brother, sister, favourite toys, friends, and of course pets, formed the subjects. Why didn’t we invent the selfie?
Again, I remember biking maybe a mile up the road to a shop that sold instant film. One time I lost my money on the way to the shop. I was heartbroken. Bizarrely later that day, I picked up a similar amount of money that someone else had dropped elsewhere. Back to the shop that sold Polaroid film!
After that, I’m not sure, but I think that it was later Kodak Instamatics, (or my old 25), then 110 pocket cameras. 110 film format was similar to 126 – only a narrow, tiny film encased in a plastic cartridge, unsuited to any enlargements above the standard print. I certainly had one when I left home, and started working as a zoo keeper, at the age of fifteen years. Easy, compact pocket cameras, sometimes with two focal lengths (wide angle and telephoto), and a hot shoe for disposable flash cubes (four use). The 110 really was a crap film format, but so cheap and pocket sized.
Around the age of seventeen years, when I was still working as a zoo keeper, I was lent a Yashica medium format TLR camera. I only took one roll of 120 film with it – but it seemed terribly old fashioned to me – the roll film was just strange. Even then I saw 120 as old fashioned film, after all, I was acquainted with film in a plastic cartridge. Seems ironic that I buy 120 roll, and use it now – some thirty five years later.
My brother David bought a Canon AE1 during the early 1980s. A real, automatic SLR camera, with lenses and filters. Oh I loved that camera, but I could only afford compact point & shoot cameras. Still, I converted to 35 mm film at last, and there were some seriously good compact cameras now on the market – with built in electronic flash, autofocus, even motorised film advance. I really can’t remember the models that I used, but I think that following my brother, that I brand preferred Canon. They weren’t SLRs, but they did allow me to improve on my 110 photography. I was taking more interest in photography, along with David, and although I didn’t have much of a camera, I picked up on some of his techniques such as composition.
I stuck with 35mm autofocus compacts until I switched to digital, except at one point, I’d guess in the early1990s, when a salesman talked me into a Kodak disk film camera. What a terrible format. The camera didn’t even last long. However, colour film really had sorted itself out by now, and some of the colours were great. Like David, I preferred Fujifilm, but if unavailable, considered the Kodak Gold to be nearly as good.
During the early 1980s, I would take my used 35mm C-41 films to be developed at the Norwich branch of Jessops. In those days, Jessops was very different to the later model that went into receivership a few years ago. The staff actually understood photography. The store even sold used equipment. It looked like a camera shop. However much we were pleased with our prints, we were shooting too much, and needed to save money. This was the age of postal photo labs such as Bonus Print, and True Print. We would post them off, five in an envelope to get the best value. Each day, I’d check with the postman to see if my prints had arrived (when will my prince arrive – old joke.).
I never took photography seriously enough to consider myself as a photography enthusiast, until as recent as five or six years ago. However, going way back, I enjoyed photography, and enjoyed documenting my life in photo albums. I amassed a pile of photo albums over I guess a fifteen to twenty year period. Raising a family, I stuck to a series of compact 35mm cameras, all of the way into the new millennium.
That was my experience of the Age of Film Photography.