Local colour (in black & white)

On a college field trip to Scotland, in the Cairngorms, I was wandering about aimlessly. I’d been given a Praktika, as had others in turn, and told to spend a day documenting the landscape. It rained most of the time that week and the students mostly kept to the cover of the Aviemore Centre and the old railyards, the cinder-blocks and ruined buildings providing an aesthetically pleasing photo-opportunity. As we were recently schooled in the abstract expressionist style of Aaron Siskind, the rusting Texaco tankers, peeling weathered signs and crumbling ice rink proved irresistible to most.

To avoid the others I took a bus out of town and wandered off into the forest. There I came upon a small wooden bungalow. Standing in front was a man who asked me, “Are ye looking for some Page Three birds to photograph? You’ll be out of luck here.” I took his picture instead. He then asked me if I’d like to photograph his birds, which were stuffed. He was a retired ornithologist and had a house full of them. He made me a cup of tea and told me all about the joys of taxidermy. It was dark inside. I had no flash and no idea of how to use one anyway. I didn’t know anything about exposure or ASA film speeds, so none of those came out. I only have this first photograph, in a moment between the rain showers.

He then sent me to visit his neighbour, Mrs Black. He said she had lived in the area all her life and could tell some fine tales. He sent me off in her direction, ‘just down the way there’ – which turned out to be another hours walk. I decided this day that having a camera was a good way to meet people you wouldn’t normally meet, be invited into their homes and learn something about their lives. That much hasn’t changed, at least for me, enjoying unexpected narratives and encounters. While we’ve moved a long way from analogue and processing 35 mm film strips in chemical tanks, still the photograph begins a conversation.

That summer, when the rains stayed away, I borrowed another Praktika from a friendly lecturer, with an additional 35mm wide angle lens, and spend four weeks walking around Dorset getting the hang of it. En route I met people like Sir Joseph Weld, Lord Lieutenant of Dorset at Maumbury Rings, fairground hawkers and traveling boxers on the Isle of Portland, dancers lovingly practising their delicate steps at dawn in the grounds of Pontin’s Holiday Camp, Osmington Mills. Along the way I encountered the denizens of the Piddle Valley, a relationship I have maintained.

It was a beginning of a love affair with the photographic image, recently rekindled by reading Geoff Dyer’s ‘The Ongoing Moment’ and admiring the work of Alec Soth.