Buying a camera, 1980

self shepherd's bush 1980

‘Oh,’ the young salesman said, touching my hand accidentally, ‘Warm hands, cold… er…’
‘Heart?’ I say.
He giggles in an embarrassed way.
‘I didn’t mean that your…’ His voice trails away. Back to business. He is a salesman after all and we are there to buy a camera.
The camera is a gift to me from my boyfriend. A Christmas gift and the repayment of a bet. Or call it an end of year incentive.
I had done my research carefully and decided that the Canon AVI was the camera that offered me everything I would need at the best price. I had borrowed friends’ SLRs beforehand and talked to them about photography. I was not ignorant of the camera’s benefits and functions, but I was a young woman, blonde and slight in what was still primarily a man’s domain. Not perhaps particularly in the realm of photographic art; there was a long history of innovative, successful and daring female photographers, from Julia Cameron through Lee Miller, Margaret Burke White, Tina Modatti, Dianne Arbus and Cindy Sherman. No, it was more in the matter of technology. Equipment. Science. Also the economic means to purchase all that prohibitively expensive equipment. Men, or rather some men, were more apt to discuss photography in terms of hardware than imagery.
The shop we were in was on Tottenham Court Road, then a street with a glut of camera shops and also hi fi emporiums; the two in seeming harmony with one another, both requiring detailed product information and an understanding of the science of the devices and their many accessories. The men who worked in these shops, and they were almost without exception men, dressed smartly in sober suits worn with shirts and ties and dress shoes.
Given that science, with its white heat of technological advance, reigned on Tottenham Court Road, it is no surprise, though it was perhaps merely a coincidence, that the same street was also the home of the Church of Scientology and that passers-by, on their way to peruse the latest Bang and Olufsen hi fi system, might be accosted by a person who was rather keen for them to undergo a free personality test.
I was only stopped once and invited to take this test but resisted all their cajoling mostly, I imagine, because I knew who I was and didn’t need a dodgy looking stranger’s input on the matter. Now part of me regrets my automatic refusal; how interesting, I think with hindsight, I wonder what it would have been like to step inside their church and be wired up to a machine. Yet another part of me however, with equal hindsight, wonders if I wouldn’t have been drawn in – if thus the route of my life would have been taken astray. If the person I am would now be different. Perhaps this assigns too much power to the Scientologists and their programming and maybe I never was the sort of person they were looking for anyway.
Who I was, was a young woman who had decided she wanted a serious single lens reflex camera. The event that finally set me on this path happened in Shepherds Bush, on the third floor of a house just off the Goldhawk Road. My boyfriend’s flat which he shared with a young man from Blackwood in South Wales. It was a Saturday morning, a slow lazy day with nothing much to do beyond shuffling out of bed, eating toast and drinking tea, perusing the papers, then possibly a lunchtime trip to the nearby pub, The Bushranger, to play pool, drink beer and listen to the jukebox. The man from Blackwood made occasional forays from the pub to the nearby betting shop as did quite a few men there. The wall mounted TV was tuned to the horse racing; the sport’s commentator’s urgent delivery battling with the jukebox, and the ashtrays overflowed with losing betting slips as well as cigarette stubs and spent matches.
In the back room of the pub there were three pool tables, and one day I noticed that when a sharply dressed, handsome young West Indian man leaned over the green baize to take a long shot his jacket fell open to reveal that he was wearing a body holster that held a concealed gun.
But on this particular lazy Saturday morning my boyfriend and I had not yet crawled out of bed and we were making the most of a much earned lie in. We were abruptly roused by the man from Blackwood who woke us with the news that the police were at the door.
This was rather frightening information, but it quickly transpired that they were not there for us or any other inhabitant of the house, rather they wanted to use our garden to gain access to another house whose garden ran along at right angles from ours.
The event that precipitated this was a siege. A man, armed with a shotgun had taken a woman and her child hostage. The street had been cordoned off and passing through the downstairs of our house went five or six armed riot police in bulletproof vests. From the top floor we watched as they moved like prowlers through the unkempt garden below with its decaying mattresses and broken washing line and thigh-high weeds.
The doorbell rang repeatedly as, after the police, the press arrived. The man from Blackwood was most put out to discover that some members of the press had paid people in the flat below cash so that they could photograph the scene from their windows.
‘They’d get a much better view from up here,’ he said with the dismay of the hard done by.
At one point while we watched, a milkman drew up outside the cordon, collected a quantity of milk bottles in his plastic crate, then ducking under the police tape and half crouching, half high stepping in the way of a comedy burglar he attempted to cross the road with the heroic aim of delivering the milk come what may. He had got halfway before a policeman managed to stop him and he returned, his body language this time speaking the limp trudge of the defeated.
From a nearby house we saw a housewife in a floral pinny appear with a tray bearing a quantity of mugs, a teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl. Proudly smiling, she approached a small gaggle of regular bobbies in their domed black helmets, their silver buttoned jackets and highly polished black boots. She, being very careful not to pass the cordon was greeted with welcoming grins.
While the man from Blackwood was still bewailing his loss of a press handout, I ached for a camera so that this curious vision of several police with drawn weapons, in bulletproof vests traversing the ruined domestic West London garden could be fixed on film and in memory, and be converted into record – both historical and personal.
This then was the decisive moment, the push towards obtaining a serious camera. And the impulse was both for a means of making documentary photos and in some degree aids to memory.
In the camera shop on Tottenham Court Road, the young salesman having only narrowly escaped telling me I had a cold heart, proceeded to extol the virtues of the camera I had asked to see; however the whole of his speech was directed at my boyfriend. When I asked questions he acted as if the words had sprung from my boyfriend’s mouth, holding him entirely in his gaze as he explained apertures, f-stops and manual overrides. All of which was meaningless to my boyfriend who had no interest whatsoever in cameras or photography.
It did not seem malicious on the young man’s part, merely reflexive and automatic. I was the proverbial talking dog and no matter how much one is entertained by a sideshow freak such as a conversating canine, one is unlucky to engage it in serious debate.
It was lucky that I had already researched my purchase and more or less decided on the camera I wanted, so that I was not dependent on the slant-wise words that were so misdirected. That I and my boyfriend did not point out to the salesman that the camera was for my sole use is another aspect of the tenor of the times.
‘What was the point?’ we might have sighed; for the world was thoroughly dominated by men in obvious and subtle ways.
The camera was duly purchased, and confirming everything in the salesman’s world view, it was my boyfriend who paid for it. No doubt the salesman assumed that I would be carefully supervised in the use of this expensive new toy and trained in its proper use by a man.
The siege in Shepherds Bush ended after a couple of hours entirely peacefully and my boyfriend and I parted company not much more than a year later.
I came to love my camera and enrolled in a photography evening class where the chief appeal was the training in and access to the darkroom. I took photographs with that camera which I now sometimes marvel at, for it seems my current output lacks in my ways by comparison, though I do not know which factors in particular are to blame – could it be that black and white film has a quality incomparable with digital processes, can it be that I have lost the singular and determined vision of my youth, or can it be that that particular camera had a supreme and singular power never to be surpassed? And never to be replicated, for approximately 7 years after I first possessed it, that camera along with additional lenses, light meter and flash, were stolen in a burglary from the shared house that I lived in.
Its replacement, the best camera I could afford at the time, was a second-hand SLR that must have been faulty from the start as it perpetually overexposed everything. So my work was never as good as it had once been. Or perhaps by some form of accretion my energy and ambition was diminished, stolen quite literally by a man and sold off carelessly and cheap.