It’s heavy and clunky, but, in its time, took a fairly-decent photo. The trouble is, I never really mastered the mysteries of our Zenit SLR camera. How it ever came into our possession has been long forgotten, nonetheless, it has stayed with us, surviving several house moves and some inexpert handling. When I met R I decided it was time to take it out of storage.
R was a news photographer in an earlier life. I am curious when I hear this. I worked on daily and weekly papers for years, and have met many ‘togs’ in that time. They were a curious, itinerant group, never tied to their desk, always out on the road. Is it possible our paths crossed at some point? It’s very likely when R describes his ‘patch’. It was the same area I covered.
He sits most days, quite happily, in the large and light lounge. He has his lunches in here too. How many coming though those doors know that this quiet gentleman was once a member of the Royal Photographic Society? He tells me he was quite good and really liked a challenge.
“Taking basic photos is easy,” he says, “but taking one that is an eye-catcher, from the point of view of art, that’s not so easy.”
I pass the heavy Zenit camera to him. R takes it, and puts it straight up to his eye. It’s a move that is so instinctive.
‘It’s Russian. They used to be very popular here once. It’s not a top-class model, but it’s a reasonable one. Feel the weight of it? Whoever designed this knew what they were doing. It’s a hefty job. You’re going to have some respect for it. Took jolly good pics.”
He’s right, they did.
Last summer, my daughter and I were sorting through boxes of photos. We came across a clutch from a camping trip to the Brecon Beacons 15 years ago. I knew it was a Zenit shot, it has a quality I recognize. My daughter came across a favourite of mine: both children are sat on camping stools looking straight down the lens. I’ve always loved the directness of their gaze. As we look at it and reminisce, we spot something in the photo: it’s sat bolt upright just behind them. Why haven’t we ever noticed it before? The hare’s black ear tips reach their shoulders, it dominates the picture, but is somehow elusive too.
Memory, recollection, these can also be elusive, but can be tempted out sometimes. R plays with the camera, twiddling with the controls that always eluded me and shows me how to use the lens. Knowledge acquired from many years on the job, has left an impression.
“These are sometimes a bit clumsy,” he tells me, “but took good pics. My own impression is that it is well designed. Designed for a purpose. You hold this in your hands and you know you have a good camera.”
He’s right about the weight. The Zenit was a very common Russian SLR and has something of the eastern bloc functionality about it.
National and regional papers have culled many photographers in recent years. In hindsight, R was probably working as a news photographer in its heyday. And it kept him very busy. So much so, he described his late wife as a ‘dark room widow’.
He said: “I took photos that I knew would be popular news items. News desk would keep me primed for what was about to happen. When I used to get back at night, I used to do all my own processing. I developed all my negatives. I might have worn something over my clothes when I was doing it in the dark room.
“I was very busy, no doubt about it. When I came home I went straight into the dark room, otherwise I wouldn’t get it done. Everyone knew me, I was well-known. Used to bump into people in town who knew me. Used to keep in touch with them all.”
I put the camera away, and R says finally: “You lose your strength and character.” It’s said without emotion, just a statement of fact.
Actress Betty Davies got it on the button when she said: ‘Growing old isn’t for sissies’.