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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 72 - New-fangled camera world unsettling for an old shutter-clicker

JOSEPH Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833). Who he? With the instantaneous action of a camera shutter, I will reveal that he was a photographic pioneer who, in 1826, made, what he called the "first successful" photograph - a grainy, street view from his bedroom window.

After a few inventions, here and there, into market exposure in 1910 came Eastman Kodak’s box Brownie with its - some claimed, wrongly - bottle-glass viewfinder and lens, the last covering a hole, or, as new technology users knew it, the aperture.

Through it, father, in rolled-up trousers, and knotted-handkerchief head-covering, was snapped paddling on some Edwardian beach. Family groups, glaring or smiling painfully at the camera, were recorded, infant classroom line-ups were fixed for embarrassed posterity, the subjects looking as cheerful as Transylvanian peasants socially introduced to Dracula. Gothic cathedrals were recorded with the family appearing as amorphous blobs in front of them. Weddings, christenings and anniversary parties with the usual under/over or double exposures, blurred images and finger-over-the-lens shots were snapped, all adding to the epic scope of the photographic album.

Eventually, the world developed a fixation for photography and few camera-users were without lens hoods, exposure meters and, sometimes, tripods and filters. Little, from typical Nepalese nose-flute craftsmen to aged Albanian charcoal burners, with faces like relief maps of the Carpathians, were safe from camera peer groups with their intrusive lenses, flashlights and burning passion to finish their films before the holiday’s end. Generations of snappers have been, as keen photographer, Bernard Shaw remarked, "like the cod which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity".

That photographic profligacy is ending. Fumbling with film and having to wait for its processing are on the way out and digital cameras that store shots on a memory card for later computer printing, e-mailing or elimination, have, for over a decade, been taking a growing share of photographic sales.

Kodak, metering the market, has seen the production light and is to stop making traditional cameras in Europe and the United States, but will concentrate its film efforts on Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and on China, where 60 million deprived people have yet to buy cameras.

Last year in the US, 12.5 million digital cameras were sold, overtaking film cameras for the first time; the British digital revolution is not far behind.

Denny Russell, the owner of Edinburgh Cameras, told me that while no other camera producers had indicated that they would follow Kodak, "they are likely to go that way". At Christmas, 19 out of 20 cameras sold by his shop were digital, but he did not believe film cameras would die out. "A lot of people can’t be bothered to use a computer for processing their shots and will stick to film."

The new-fangled photographic world is unsettling for an old shutter-clicker like me, a one-time box Brownie owner, whose photographs often looked as if taken in a light mist, appeared lopsided, suggesting a small but lively earthquake or had telegraph poles growing out of people’s heads.

I am still at the blunt edge of 1950s technology with an aged Leica, whose shutter click sounds discreetly like a Rolls Royce door closing, a Rolleiflex, once the favourite of press photographers, and a venerable but still workable Pentax, with a shutter sounding like the descent of a guillotine blade.

I have also about 5,000 transparencies, reminders of the virtual disappearance of once-mandatory social events - holiday slide shows. These could be exquisite torture. One, I at-tended, showed 150 slides upside down. The audience vehemently objected to the host reloading the slide carriers as that would have only prolonged the agony. Some shows lasted for hours. Viewers’ suffering youngsters, if they had known the words of Moses to the Pharaoh, might have cried out, "let my people go". I used to count my retaliatory slide evenings a success if no more than eight people were asleep, a couple semi-somnolent and a dozen only stunned.

While digital photographs can be viewed on computer or TV screens, I doubt if their displays will have the same formal dignity and duration as slide sessions for which the ultimate blame must lie with Niepce.

Meanwhile, despite my traditional camera viewpoint, I have the easy-to-produce pixel pictures in my financial viewfinder. Smile please, I’m going digital - dotty might be another word.

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