Cameras At Hand

My first camera, a 120 film Box Brownie was purchased for twelve and sixpence while I was a schoolboy in Auckland way back in 1946. With my treasured camera I recorded some of my fellow workers in the tobacco fields at Riwaka outside Motueka during the summer school holiday break. Somewhere among my thousands of prints and negatives the results of my first photojournalist effort may still lie hidden.

When I joined the New Zealand Herald newspaper in 1948 as a cadet, the main news camera in use was the Graflex D. This was a heavy American-made camera that used quarter-plate glass sensitised plates to capture an image. The camera was built like a Russian tank and in experienced hands produced superb negatives, especially for landscape and more static subjects.

The imitations of the Graflex and other big format cameras of those times was that the magazines that clipped on the back of the camera held just twelve plates or sheets of cut film, and when used for sport and racing assignments, care had to be exercised to ensure the photographer did not run out of plates at a crucial moment.

The Graflex was superseded by the Speed Graphic, probably one of the most recognised news cameras of the post-war years. Countless movies featured news photographers battling to record celebrities or diasters with the glamorous Speed Graphic, which with it’s rangefinder and frame finder was much easier to focus.

Then came the 35mm film camera revolution, mainly represented by the ubiquitous German Leica, a camera that had been used from the thirties through the forties mainly by European magazine photographers. When the Leica first made its appearance in the photographic department of the Herald and its sister publication the Weekly News, grave doubts were expressed by Bill Beattie the chief photographer and some printers that, because of the coarser grain of 35mm film, the quality of photo reproductions in the news pages would suffer.

Other film cameras were also making their presence felt, such as the 120 roll German Rolleiflex and Super lkonta cameras. Improved optics and portability soon won over many former users of the cumbersome Graflex and Speed Graphic cameras Both the Leica and Contax 35mm cameras were used extensively throughout the world and still have faithful devotees who would never use anything else.

The Korean War and the fierce fighting that divided that country saw the emergence of the Japanese 35mm cameras. The phenomenal quality of the Japanese lenses took the media world by storm – a photographic atomic bomb. The media world discovered that the two Japanese camera giants Nikon and Canon had been manufacturing cameras and other optics for decades but it was the news photographers swapping their German cameras for the new Nikon Fs and Canons that let the world know the Japanese camera makers were ready and waiting to deliver.

Life, the widely read American illustrated news magazine ran a cover shot of US marines fighting in Korea and in doing so paid tribute to the Nikon F camera and the Japanese camera industry… As they say, the rest is history.

A Canon 35mm was the first Japanese camera I owned and used while with the New Zealand Army in Malaya. It was later to be replaced with the Nikon F and a variety of lenses with which I shot the bulk of my sports and news pictures through the sixties up until the late eighties when I changed to Canon.

The bigger older cameras then disappeared completely from the newsrooms – just like the dodo.

Next came the biggest-ever photographic change or revolution, call it what you will. Digital technology ambushed the world of photography. Overnight, film cameras and their associated equipment costing thousands of dollars became obsolete. Soon anyone who owned a digital camera could become an adequate or even good photographer. For myself it was like a stagecoach driver to being asked to tie up the horses at the airport, catch your breath and take 10 minutes to read the flight manual and then fly this 747 aircraft waiting on the tarmac.

My first venture into the digital world of cards and pixels was with a Canon EOS D60, it was like starting all over again in photography with an upmarket Box Brownie, only this one had all the bells and whistles and no more carrying a pocket full of film. It took a day or three to come to terms with the D60 but with it I put my foot on the digital ladder, and am still using it, except when it is not appearing as a prop in this exhibition.

It has taken me a long time to accept the new world of digital photography and I am still not yet really comfortable with the new medium but just like professional rugby, it is definitely here to stay.