I’ve been taking (and storing) photographs since about 1970 and I’m unsure when my eye for photography first began to be a dominant force in my life. All I recall is that many adults around me were very good photographers and I was encouraged by their interests. I grew up in a world where having a camera to hand was as normal as holding a cigarette and perhaps a glass of malt or a glass of wine. In fact, a third hand might have been useful to many of the adults I knew.
Cues, punctum (Barthès) and decisive moments (Cartier-Bresson) were things I had yet to recognise and therefore could not articulate. Yet, unaware as I was, they were already drawing me in, and they call to me still. Meanwhile, I was also focussing on the angst of others expressed in their music:
‘Don’t doubt the fact there’s life within you
Yesterday’s endings will tomorrow life give you’
– Survival from the first Yes album (1969).
Kodak Instamatics were the most practical and affordable medium for those first few years. Then I acquired an East German Praktica LTL in 1975. The ability to use interchangeable lenses and the novel Cokin range of filters set me up to learn by misadventure. Sadly, my amateur ambitions were curtailed by the hideous expenses of the film; it was expensive to buy and develop and making colour prints was almost unaffordable on a student budget. To add injury to insult, making a mess of a photo was also embarrassing because students I knew operated the local development and printing companies I’d use.
I felt like a member of a strange kind of photography club. Someone you were paying for a useless print might say ‘I can see what you were trying to do’. Or as happened a few times ‘I wish I could have been there’ without adding the implication ‘to help you’. Such acquaintances made no attempt to pretend they hadn’t seen the prints in the envelope I was collecting.
One night, late in the Michaelmas term of my Senior Sophister year in Dublin University, looking out from my residence in Botany Bay, I was practicing capturing light trails from the bedroom window. Our front view was onto the tennis courts but the other side of the ‘rooms’ overlooked the intersection of Pearse and D’Olier Streets. I had 400 ASA Fuji film and a Praktica camera with bulb mode so I could set the aperture to f/11 and activate the shutter with a mechanical shutter release cable, the camera held steady on the windowsill. [Yes, that reads like an entry from Pseuds Corner in Private Eye.]
I recall collecting the print of the shot included above. The guy behind the counter in the 24 hour film printshop was well known to me. He said that it’s not a great photo from a technical point of view but he seemed pleased that I avoided the street lights flaring or washing over the image. The good news almost half a century later is that there are some historical niceties preserved from 1976.
Look on the right, above the sign above the ubiquitous VW Beetle. There’s the sign for the New Metropole Cinema that had only opened a few years before. We went there a few times from college but I’ve no idea what we watched. It became The Screen in 1980, closed in 2016 and was demolished in 2018 after almost two centuries of performances. It had started as the Theatre Royal in 1821 only becoming The Regal Rooms Cinema in the 1930’s after many years as a music hall. I recall sitting in our rooms in Trinity imagining George Formby playing there alongside Gracie Fields. We sometimes listened to When I’m Cleaning Windows which had the great line ‘for a nosey parker it’s an interesting job’.
Mad truth: my father enjoyed Formby’s comedic songs and had several of his LPs that got sometimes got played late at night. Very late at night. I thought Formby was a throwback with an accent that conjured soldiery rather than comedy and yet, he was easy listening after a few hours in the pub. I guess that was the charm of the music hall.