Friday, September 14, 2012

A Child's-Eye View

I have a new scanner. Not only does it now take less time to scan an image than it does to make a cup of tea, but it also makes half-decent copies of slides and for the first time in years, I've been able to look at the photos I took as a child in the late 1970s.

I don't think many schoolchildren were into slide photography in those days, but my father had access to a steady supply of slightly out of date films and in the void left after my all-consuming obsession with Marvel comics, I needed a new hobby.

As luck would have it, my Auntie Nance died and left me the princely sum of £30. I used it to buy the latest Abba LP and a no-frills 35mm 'manual focus' camera. It was money well spent.

Looking at the pictures over 30 years on, I have no idea why I took most of them. I can only assume that a trip to London was so exciting (despite living a mere ten miles away from Hyde Park Corner) that even the most mundane features warranted a photograph:

At a glance, the Waterloo station of 1979 doesn't look radically different. In the background, you can just about see the brown and orange livery of WH Smith and the font on the signs seems to be the same, but you'd search in vain for a cappuccino or a pain au chocolat.

However, if you think Waterloo station's boring, try this for size:

High Street Kensington. From a modern perspective this photograph has a timeless dullness, but the advert for Silk Cut cigarettes clearly dates the image. It's also nice to see a poster for Pernod after my recent experience with a bemused barmaid.

I haven't been to Earls Court for a long time, but I remember the blue signs with illuminated arrows that indicated where each train was going. During many a long wait for the Richmond line, I developed a deeply-rooted hatred for Ealing Broadway and Wimbledon, which seemed to have more than their fair share of trains.

London seems more drab in these photos and if I remember correctly, parts of the Thames were lined with disused warehouses and gaps left by bomb sites. I wish that I'd had the sense to photograph that aspect of the city rather than waste film on shots of Big Ben and the Tower Bridge.

Home: the dreaming suburb of Teddington, with street upon street of semi-detached Victorian houses. I never liked it that much and couldn't understand why Teddington became a property 'hotspot' until I started visiting other London suburbs. When you've been to Sidcup and Perivale (not to mention Ealing Broadway), Teddington suddenly looks very attractive.

Twickenham riverside, taken from the bridge to the once famous Eel Pie Island, where the Rolling Stones used to play at the now defunct hotel. As a child I took this area, with its parks, stately homes and Georgian buildings, completely for granted, but by the time I bought my camera I was beginning to see it differently.

The Richmond May Fair, 1979. Interestingly, I don't think it's the man in the bow tie that dates the photo - you'll probably still see people like him wandering around Richmond - but the woman on the left, with the long dress.

I used to dread going to this fair because my parents invariably bumped into people they knew from their childhood and I would have to listen to one conversation after another. In the 1980s something changed - perhaps the advent of the Yuppie era - and it was as if the area had been ethnically cleansed. The last time I went to the fair with my parents, they didn't meet a single person they knew.

When I tell people that I grew up in Richmond-upon-Thames, their reaction is usually something along the lines of "Oooh, la-di-dah!", but it was a normal place in those days. Like Hampstead, Richmond had more millionaires per square mile than most London suburbs, but there weren't many of them by the gasworks where my mother lived.

In many ways I prefer the London of 2012, but I wish that the local communities hadn't been destroyed by the vagaries of the housing market. Today, Richmond feels soulless, almost like a gated community for the very wealthy.

I went to school with over 1000 children, but could spend a week walking the streets of Richmond and Twickenham without bumping into anyone I know. Where did everyone go?

In addition to photos of London and Richmond, I also found a few from trips to the west of England (including the picture at the top):

This is a medieval barn in Bradford-upon-Avon, Wiltshire. It has an ingeniously-designed feature where, at a certain time of the day, the setting sun produces a golden cross on the floor. By sheer chance, I turned up at exactly the right moment:

Further west, the photo below of Dartmoor makes it look even more desolate than I remember:

For a cheap camera, manufactured in one of the lesser regimes of the east, these photos beat the Kodak Instamatic hands down. If only the pictures hadn't been quite so dull. Why did I take photographs of Brentford high street, mallard ducks in Bushy Park and a blurred shot of a train entering Twickenham station?

Thank God there were no digital cameras in 1979. If I'd been let loose with 8GB of memory, then there's no telling how far I would have gone. Bus stops? Lamp posts? It makes me shudder to think of it.


Rog said...

Lovely red sky shot. Your digital images would have been stored on 5.25" floppies so entirely safe from the general public. What was the camera?

Tororo said...

Please don't feel sorry for having shot seemingly "dull" pictures: the ones I have left from the time I had my first camera (an Instamatic, of course) offer equally dull views, and I could as well ask myself "why?". I guess to any kid, the wonder of being able to take their own pictures is exciting enough. Plus, several of the ones above not only have got this special time-capsule quality but plastic qualities as well. The ominous sky above dreaming Teddington, if printed on a movie poster, would convey a clear meaning: we are only minutes afar from the Martians landing! (or perhaps: Death-Eaters dark magic is at work somewhere). Ad the moors shot works well as a picture of isolation.

Steerforth said...

Rog - I wish I could remember. That camera meant so much to me at the time, I feel almost guilty that I can't recall its name! It wasn't a well-known name - not even a Praktica or Zenith. There was a little dial where I had to guess how far away the subject was - not a perfect system, but better than the rubbishy 'fixed focus'.

Tororo - As you say, it was very exciting. I think that as a child, you live in the moment and don't worry about posterity or other people's aesthetic sensibilities. Perhaps part of becoming a decent photographer is learning to rediscover that magic in the ordinary and mundane.

Little Nell said...

We've just got a new scanner and are busily scanning both my parents' and our own boxes of slides. Like you, we found many 'views' which could be anywhere, but the ones with people in are the ones to keep. It also means you can get rid of some of the ghastly discolouration, although we've had to convert some to black and white as all colours have faded to a general blue or green. Nevertheless it's been a revelation.

Foxesatdawn said...

Scanning old family slides has been a project of my dad's for a very long while now, as the tedium of it means he can only do it in short bursts. Nearly a whole box of slides taken around 1974 are photos of a hospital car park shot from from above. These were taken when I was hospitalised with pneumonia and are a poignant record of the sense of helplessness and, I'm sure, awkwardness my Dad must have felt during the visits to see me.

Flavia said...

Kind of a spooky feeling to read from someone else who grew up in Teddington -- now so far away and so long ago.

Steerforth said...

Flavia - You didn't go to Richmond College in the early 80s did you? There was a Flavia in my politics class.

I always find it intriguing that the most famous people to spring from Teddington were Noel Coward, John Wells and Julian Clary - perhaps the place gives people a highly developed sense of the absurd.

(I've also wondered why so many bands and singers grew up in the Bromley-Dartford area: the Rolling Stones, Bowie, Siouxsie, Culture Club etc. Perhaps the dullness of the place produced a creative energy).

Nell - I've struggled with the discolouration on some slides, but most have come up pretty well. Sometimes, the corrected versions look too 'now' and I reset them back to their slightly faded, blue-remembered tinge.

I feel ambivalent about digitising everything. I value my albums, but they're already falling apart after only 25 years - photo mounts have dried up and the picture are turning green.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

I'm very lucky in that my late Mum's partner put all the old family 35mm slides onto a cd rom for us some time ago - and he wasn't even in any of the photos. He even did some slide-shows of our Swiss and Austrian holidays from the late 70s/early 80s and put a soundtrack of yodelling music on. They are wonderful to look back on, and together with my Mum's diaries are helping me compile a family chronology.

Funnily enough, I recognised High St Kensington tube station from your photo!

lapsangsouchong said...

Steerforth, you're far too hard on your eight-year-old self. All of these photos have a good sense of balance and a visual dynamism even if they're of 'boring' subjects. You'd obviously picked up the rule of thirds from somewhere, too: in the few photos I took at that age you'll find every horizon running across the centre of the image, every face in the middle. You only just cut some people's feet off in the Richmond Fair picture, and not at all in the Earls Court one (where the chap's crossed leg also echoes the white line at the edge of the platform). I can see why you wouldn't want to big up your pictures – "I Was A Boy Genius!" – but in the circumstances they're pretty good.

Canadian Chickadee said...

I guess change is inevitable, but I understand how you feel about returning to the old neighbourhood and not seeing a soul you knew. I grew up in a small town, which today is a medium-to-large city, thanks to the influx of the behemoth Microsoft and the building of hundreds and hundreds of new homes. Sometimes when I return to the town, I am hard put to even find or remember where certain buildings, once important to me, used to be. I recently reminisced about an ice cream shop which I went to with friends while I was in school. "Let's make a pilgrimage," my friend's wife said. "We can't - it's gone, replaced by a six-story block of flats."
Change is inevitable, but not always for the better.

Steerforth said...

Thank you Lapsang - I'm glad that you picked up on the Man Ray influences and of course the absence of feet was a subtle reference to the 'feet of clay' of Richmond's wealthy residents. I must admit I'm secretly please with the shot of the hills and the barn.

Chickadee - They say the past is a foreign country, but it's really the future. You grow up somewhere and form a view of how the world works, only to discover that it's all built on sand.

From my point of view, that world was slow to change. People generally stayed in the same houses and apart from seeing them get older, life went on as usual. Then in mid-80s, my 'manor' became popular - probably because it was the greenest part of London - and the house prices shot up. Local people gratefully sold their very ordinary houses for a song, wealthier people moved in, shops became smart restaurants and suddenly I felt like a stranger in my own town.

I reacted by moving here, where I've probably helped tohere out of their own area. Oh well.

Steerforth said...

Sorry, that last sentence should read "Where I've probably helped to price the local people out of their own area".