It would be trite for me to compare a camera lens to an optical lens – it’s an overused metaphor. It would perhaps be more interesting to draw a comparison between the shutter and my stutter – did you not know? A slight speech hesitation, the same one as my father and my nephew, apparently our brains work faster than our mouths, which is odd, because oftentimes it seems to me that my mouth is talking while my brain is completely disengaged …
That’s a false start.
Following my father’s death my mother gave me his camera, a Yashica SLR with three lenses, regular, wide and zoom. At that time I had no interest in photography. I had no interest in anything. I was unaware what interest was. Interest is something that cannot exist underneath a blanket of anti depressants and anti psychotics. I was comfortably numb, but I liked the cases the camera and lenses came in, black leather with a red, velvety interior. As objects I found them beautiful.
My husband is a keen amateur photographer. I am fortunate (or unfortunate depending on how you look at it) to be married to a man who can apparently do everything. He learns with astonishing speed, and he never does anything by halves. He used my father’s camera. It was just one more thing I couldn’t do.
The camera broke, I don’t know how or why, something wrong with the shutter I think, it became sticky in some way, pictures were flashed with oranges and yellows. I cried when the camera broke. Everything that I ever got from my father was either broken when I received it or disintegrated pretty much on contact. Given that I had never actually used the camera, I was unreasonably upset, so Matt bought me another camera body, a clunky old Contax.
The new camera, I could touch it, I felt like I could use it, it fitted in my hands as if it belonged there. Matt showed me how to change the lenses and load film. He explained shutter speed, F stops, depth of field. I wasn’t very good at first, the numbers confused me, I have never really been able to process numbers or understand relationships, but he was patient, he is patient.
Eventually, I got to grips with it all and became fairly confident and competent. I learned to use a dark room. I like dark rooms, shut away from everything so your mistakes are private. I can only process and print black and white though, colour is a different beast altogether, and much more expensive and complicated …
As my mother staggered towards death, vomiting and incoherent (but she was always drunk so none of us noticed the difference between one disease and another), she started giving away stuff. She gave me my father’s slides, the transparencies of the pictures he had taken. Perhaps I was interested, I don’t know, but I didn’t look at them, I shut them in my desk drawer.
I continued to use my father’s camera, which was no longer ‘his’ camera only his lenses. I liked taking pictures of people, the momentary expressions of their faces, like when you can see inside them, or take an instant of time and freeze it and own it. I started to look at things in a different way, the pictures made more sense to me than words ever did. I found that the things I couldn’t explain I could show to people in images. I could talk to the photograph, it could exemplify what I thought but didn’t have the verbal dexterity to communicate.
I went from still image to moving image and a whole world opened up to me. Finally, I’d found something that I could use to make sense. The first film I produced was pretty appalling … the story of a one armed statue being made love to by an emotionally crippled woman. I recorded the soundtrack separately, with Benny Boy on bass and me screaming a stoned abjection. Ach, it’s a terrible film but I still have a huge amount of affection for it, cos it’s naked and quivering and apologetic, but it works, somehow.
I just went for a walk …
You know, I’ve been trying to write this piece for years, about how I look through the same lenses that my father did and it’s like I can see through what might have been his eyes. This could or should be romantic and comforting, but I never did see things the same as him, except when I did.
For most of the time he was alive I hated my dad, except when I didn’t, but it’s so incredibly hard … When I was 18 I tried to shove him into one box, by the time I was 25 it was lead lined and sliding into the ocean from underneath a Union Jack – that’s what he would’ve wanted, but something I find utterly remote … I kept the name plaque, brass, ‘Leslie White, 1923 – 1995’, there was no point in the RIP, he never had peace in his life.
My mother used to say that she didn’t believe in heaven and hell, not like in a ‘when you’re dead’ kind of way. She thought that each and every one of us lives our heavens and hells. What I never understood, therefore, is why both of my parents tried to make my life a living hell. Oh, these sentences aren’t scanning properly. I know in my guts what I want to say, something about life sentences and living hells and the impossibility of it all, but it just won’t come out …
And that’s why the pictures, the photographs, my memories are locked in there, because they’re clean times. If I try and look inside my head it’s like putting my hand into one of those feely box things, you know, where you can’t see what’s inside, and then you touch it and you recoil. Mostly, you can identify the contents, like if it’s woolly or hairy or banana shaped or something, but it’s the act and plunging your hand into the unknown. When I try and put my writing hands into my memory head that’s what happens, I just pull back and every part of me is cringing, but when I look at the pictures, it feels alright, but then I don’t know what to do, because I know it wasn’t alright, except when it was.
How do you bridge a gap, between one reality and another? The other day I took my scanner to my studio and strapped it to the side of my big work machine. I remembered my father’s slides in my desk drawer and decided to take a look, over 10 years later and now I’m looking. Photographs of me as a small, blond haired child, of course I didn’t recognise myself, I can’t remember being that person. The act of photography has removed me. I’m not there, I’m here and there are no pictures that trace that route …
The final photograph of my father shocked me. For all my life he had a beard and I never saw his face, but this was taken when my mother was pregnant with me, and this is how he looked. I stared and stared at this one, because I can see my face in his, or perhaps more correctly his face in mine, and I never knew that. I didn’t remember because I never knew in the first place, but now the photograph has put that memory there. I keep looking at myself in the mirror now, and I can see him looking back at me. It’s terrifying, in a way, I suppose …
Then here à
photographs taken with my father’s camera, lenses, you know, my life, my friends, my kids, my relatives, that he never knew, but it’s the same eyes, his/mine/glass reflective/whatever.
Oh this is just confused twaddle, I should stop now and do something useful, or maybe I should have written about apertures and irises in the first place, but I’m trying to explain this to myself, I’m trying to find a way to make this work so that I can understand it.
I don’t think I’m doing very well at the moment. I don’t feel quite right. I wish I could write better or my head would sort itself out so that I could figure out how to deal with this. It was his face, seeing his face, I didn’t expect that. I didn’t recognise my own father. I don’t think I ever have and I don’t know that I ever will. I want to. I want to find someplace I can be with him, and in the pictures, with his camera, I think I might, cos there’s always been more of him in me than I can cope with.