Yes. As a child I did have a Brownie box, and I have a few albums of greyscale photos from that time, usually taken on special occasions because they were so expensive to develop. There is my brother, halfway down the Giants’ Staircase at Katoomba, looking up as if he’s hearing the voices of angels; the minister from our church in a big sand-hole at the beach with fingers up like devil’s horns; one of my school friends crouching down at dusk with the water rippling round her and a boiled spud in her hand, on a biology excursion at Narrabeen; Dad in swimmers and a vast Mexican sunhat with his arm around mum on a Jervis Bay holiday.
The Brownie box disappeared, and I didn’t own another camera until the 1990s. All the photos of our offspring were taken by my father, so many things a gap because he only visited a few times a year.
Then, when I was living in Broken Hill, I met the art teacher. He was a photographer, and after I’d seen his shots of old machinery and sunflower skeletons (copies now hanging at the entrance to my house), I became interested. Every weekend I’d borrow the school camera, and see what I could find. Eventually in 1996 I bought a camera for myself, a golden one, that captured my experiences in Broken Hill, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, with varying degrees of success. My fiftieth birthday gathering at dawn on the Sundown Trail; my daughter, dressed up for her year 10 formal; the strange hollow stump that exuded power in the Flinders; my beloved purple and green tent, and my beloved corrugated iron house, garden and bookcases under construction; a guest pulling a giant bread and butter pudding out of the oven; the oasis and the desert at Siwa; an antique flatbread in the Cairo museum; the view from the Pinnacles and Mundi Mundi; endless spectacular outback sunsets; the broken pot from the time of King Solomon in the trench at the Pella dig; the family in the Dead Cities with an entrepreneurial 8 year old son; Palmyra seen through mist early on New Years Day; the vast wooden water wheels and the elegant palace in Hama; the mosaics of Madaba; the rock face of the siq at Petra; the demanding landscapes of Wadi Rum. I have a bookcase full of albums that need drastic culling or scanning.
Then my photographic life changed forever. By the time I retired, I was using my 3 megapixel Konica Minolta, with its German lens and its glowing palette. By then nothing was safe from my photographic scrutiny: landscape, bark, shells, flowers, sea, sky, even occasionally people. The digital world had arrived and I could shoot to my heart’s content: my first three month’s supply of photos would have cost me more than $1000 to have developed and printed. Now I could edit out the junk and save everything non-spatially. I developed a new routine: walk, photograph, return home, download, edit, name, save, and clear the card ready for the next excursion. A tripod became an occasional companion, but I found that mostly I could get the plant, seaweed and shell shots I wanted by crouching or lying flat on my face.
And there you have it. I became photo-obsessive. I loved my camera and it returned my love by taking splendid photos. It even adjusted for wind-woggle. I documented my territory: headland, beach, rock pools, cliffs and bush. I began to know the whereabouts of particular plants, and mourn the loss of the hakea, the banksia spinulosa, the geebung, which fell victim to fire hazard reduction. My files from this camera include my first retirement flower shot, a fringe lily; the cycles of casuarinas and banksias; wattle pods and flowers; the minute zieria; donkey orchids and bearded orchids; schelhammera spurting pollen; spotted gum bark in all its transformations; shells and grains of sand; rock pools and their denizens; and the endless exquisite patterns of the rock face. My failures? The spray of the breaking wave; the three dimensions of the hyacinth orchid; the dimness of the rainforest.
But the Konica’s a bit big for travelling light. I invested in a Fuji cheapo, 12 megapixels. It’s not so good on close up, and its colour tends towards blue, but it’s small and convenient. Its first outing was a rushed trip to Stanthorpe for my daughter’s birthday. It proved itself to be a great shooter from the train window: I expected an impressionistic blur, and I got clarity, and new subject matter. I now have a collection of photos through glass from bus, car, train, tram, plane, cable car, and boat.
Then my Warsaw daughter announced that she was having twins, and life tilted on its axis. If I was going to travel overseas, I needed a smaller camera and a good one, so I bought my Sony Cybershot, all 21 megapixels of it, to record a new city and new descendants. It was small and convenient, croppable, and also not so good on closeups. It walked snowy streets, and eagerly photographed long icicles hanging from the doors, intricate plasterwork, doors and windows, and babies. Photos filled my iPad to capacity, and became the default mode of my blogging, taking over from words.
When we began boating, I took J’s faithful old camera on the maiden voyage: I fell in and drowned it. So the first Fuji became his, and I bought another cheap Fuji for a dedicated boating camera. It captured movies of our first rowing adventures, reflections in the river, trees and forest on the banks. But not the tiger snake (or python) swimming towards us, or the cow stuck in the mud, or the hoons in over large fast boats, or us dragging the boat onto the back of the ute. Once the sail went up, the camera stayed at home. Sailing is like walking dogs or two-year-olds: it needs all your attention, even when you just have to sit.
My interest in photography generated other interests. I wanted to know the names of the plants I was photographing, so a photographic session included time with a local plant ID book, conveniently colour-coded for the novice. My interest in art drifted over into the composition of my photos – horizontals and diagonals particularly. I went to exhibitions of photos; Ansel Adams and the absolute clarity of every blade of grass; Bob Brown, then leader of the Australian Greens, and his splendid capturing of the light and dimness of rainforest; and more recently the collection at the Cairns Regional Gallery, tracing the history of photography. I devoured articles about photography in Artonview, the magazine of the National Gallery of Australia, and in the MoMA newsletter and I finally, after many years of meaning-to, read Susan Sontag On photography, with which I’m in ongoing argument.
Now I don’t step out the door without my camera, sure that if I do there’ll be a man riding a cow along the Potato Point road, or a line of emus striding across the beach casting their shadows, or an echidna swaying its way across the road, or twins hugging each other, or shadows falling a particular way. The thing about photography is that you only have one chance. Miss it and it’s gone forever.